x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

For all their failings, Egypt's elections energise a nation

Egyptians resoundingly approve constitutional changes, but the enthusiasm generated by voting in a free election far over-shadows the results.

It's an extraordinary thing to watch a nation of people in a democratic flash change from politically disenfranchised to emboldened agents of change. The results of Egypt's first national elections following the revolution are in, and constitutional changes have been approved - but for many, the cause for celebration has more to do with the fact that yays and nays were counted at all.

Just having a choice has been the source of the excitement. Egyptians who waited four, five or six hours in line to vote on the constitutional changes are more likely to gleefully show off an ink-stained index finger than to gloat over the results. Egyptians deserve to revel in the referendum. It has been a long time coming.

More than 18 million Egyptians voted in Saturday's referendum, and around 77 per cent turned out in support of the constitutional changes, which included limiting future Egyptian presidents to eight years in office, prohibiting the election of presidents who are married to foreign nationals, and ensuring that any elected president appoint a vice president within 60 days of assuming office. Hosni Mubarak had no vice president for more than 29 years of his rule.

In the past, many Egyptians trying to initiate change at the ballot box could expect a beating at the hands of state officials. Now, polling stations are places Egyptians want to go.

Many Egyptians under 30 who had lived their entire lives under the rule of the same autocrat voted for the first time last week. Many older Egyptians who had never bothered participating in predestined elections during the Nasser, Sadat or Mubarak years voted for the first time, too. A few polling stations cordoned special lines for voters more than 60 years of age, so that those who had been denied democracy for over half a century could get in and out faster.

Certainly, some Egyptians are dissatisfied with the constitutional changes, but few in the country miss the larger democratic picture. Announcing the results of the referendum, Mohamed Ahmed Attia, the chairman of the supreme judiciary council, said: "This is the first real referendum in Egypt's history. We had an unprecedented turnout because after January 25, people started to feel their vote would matter."

Things aren't perfect, of course. While Saturday's referendum drew 18 million participants, shattering the numbers of voters who used to participate in Mubarak's regular coronations, this figure represents just 41 per cent of eligible voters, despite the fact that polls stayed open for several additional hours.

And harassment of political organisers still exists. The political activist Sherif Baraka and New York Times videographer Adam Ellick were physically confronted by plainclothes police officers last week, arrested and briefly detained, after Mr Baraka was spotted handing out leaflets opposing the ratification of the constitutional changes. There were also a few scattered reports of unrest or obstructionism at some polling locations. But by and large, Egypt's referendum was a smooth display of democratic decision.

History tells us that Egypt's electoral euphoria will likely regress to more moderate levels. Americans and Britons, for example, are very proud of their vibrant political systems, and yet political apathy and inactivity in modern democracies are pressing issues. While political participation is a modern right, so is political abstention, and it's sometimes easier to move mountains than to get 75 per cent of voters to participate in anything. Even if 30 million Egyptians vote in upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, their ecstasy will likely be tempered by the gruelling challenges of moving a developing democracy forward.

But there's a lot in Egypt to be optimistic about. That Egypt's revolution was astonishingly peaceful, as revolutions go, was no accident, nor was the fact that the first subsequent display of democracy was orderly. This should not be taken for granted. What's happening in Libya right now is what revolutions typically look like, whether they succeed or not.

Tunisia and Egypt, however, are remarkable exceptions. Egyptians are tired of how the old instruments of force of the state have done things. They were determined to peacefully wait out the old regime in Tahrir Square, and they patiently waited hours Saturday to have their inaugural say.

Like an ageing shut-in who has not left the house in years and finally goes on a walk, Egyptians may not see physical results right way, but they can say together: "Boy, it feels good to get out."

 

Dr Justin D Martin is a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review and a journalism professor at The American University in Cairo. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin