x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Egyptians face a bigger question than yes or no

Egyptians vote on the new constitution, but the real question is much more significant that voting yes or no.

Egyptians who go to the polling booths today and tomorrow are voting on a far bigger question than whether to simply approve the new constitution. It is bigger even than whether to accept the military-led road map for Egypt’s return to democracy after Mohammed Morsi was deposed a year into his presidency. At issue is an endorsement of the army’s actions and, in a wider sense, the kind of Egypt in which its citizens seek to live.

The inevitable comparison will be with the last constitution in December 2012, which was approved by 63.8 per cent of votes cast – but that result was tempered by a turnout of only one in three of eligible voters. With constituencies loyal to Mr Morsi having boycotted the process as illegitimate ever since the military deposed him last July and with the near-absence of voices advocating a no vote, an even higher proportion is likely to vote yes this time around. The real signal will be the overall turnout of voters since the choice is not between yes and no, so much as between yes and abstaining.

Any student of history knows that revolutions rarely lead directly to improvement and stability, and this is a lesson ordinary Egyptians have been reacquainting themselves with since the short but spectacularly successful uprising that led to Hosni Mubarak’s resignation. Three years later, few in Egypt still harbour the idealism and hope that exemplified the mood of Tahrir Square and beyond in January and February in 2011.

Many of the factors that drove the 2011 revolution – economic stagnation and the lack of opportunity to get ahead – remain. In some ways, matters are even worse than before that revolution, with the tourism industry in particular badly affected by the image of violence and instability.

It is little surprise that ordinary Egyptians once again find appeal in the notion of strong rulers who are capable of bringing stability and security, even if it comes at the cost of some of the freedoms they believed they were fighting for in Tahrir Square. One might ask whether that appeal will remain after a couple of years of rule by a Mubarak-style strongman, but that is the nature of democracy.

Another lesson that students of history know is that, with time, revolutions can eventually lead to improvement – a concept that ordinary Egyptians will hope to see demonstrated in their country.