Egypt's constitutional referendum: the untold story

By ignoring expressions of people power in the Egyptian  constitutional referendum, some western political commentators and the media are showing a disconnect with the pulse of the citizenry and engaging in a dangerous politics of omission, argues Mariz Tadros

While western policy analysts and “experts” were lamenting the death of democracy in Egypt, women took to the streets during the two days of referendum over Egypt’s constitution, ululating, clapping and challenging the red lines of female propriety by dancing in broad daylight in public. Most western analysts and media have ejected from their accounts the occurrence of Egyptian women’s spontaneous burst into singing and dancing across many polls in Egypt because it is incongruent with their accounts of a country that has more or less lost “positive” citizen agency since the ousting of President Morsi after the military intervened.

It is interesting that when women challenged many social conventions and norms in the Egyptian revolution of 2011 against President Mubarak, it attracted much western attention. When women's participation reached new heights - in the second revolution of June 2013 against President Morsi - it was sidelined. When women take to the streets in unconventional displays of agency, as they did in the constitutional referendum of 2014, they hardly featured in western reports and media coverage. Undoubtedly what was happening on the streets of Egypt during the two days of the constitutional referendum was an expression of female agency, uninhibited and unrestrained by patriarchal mores internalized through years of disciplining of what respectable women should and should not do in public. However, no one considered that this may possibly be an element of people power because these women were dancing and singing to the tune of teslam al ayadi, a song that was produced immediately after the 30th of June revolution to celebrate the role of the military in ousting President Morsi. 

There is no examination of why the women who constituted the biggest bloc of voters endorsing the Muslim Brotherhood-initiated constitution also represent overwhelmingly the largest number of voters endorsing this constitution. There is no examination of why women were responsive to el-Sisi’s request that they participate in the revolution, nor why the level of animosity that they harbour towards the Muslim Brothers has become so intense. By failing to ask these questions, we are missing important signals for understanding how people are thinking, what they are expecting, and why. 

Critics would argue that these women out there to show their support for the constitution have not even read the text of the constitution. Certainly some of them would not have, and they were there to show support for el-Sisi, more so than a commitment to the constitution. However, if we were to read the constitution through gender sensitive lens, women are conceivably some of its most notable winners.  For the first time ever, the constitution stipulates that the state is committed to women holding public and senior management offices in the state and their appointment in judicial bodies and authorities without discrimination. For the first time too the state commits to protect women from all forms of violence(article 11). Article 180 sets a quarter of seats in the local council for women, again for the first time ever. True the presence of article 2 which stipulates that Islam is the principle source of legislation can be used by conservatives to undermine the idea of unqualified rights, however, any removal of that article would have been met with complete opposition from large segments of the constituent assembly. Article 93 stipulates the state’s commitment to international conventions which is instrumental for women’s rights in view of Egypt’s ratification of CEDAW, and will help leverage the constitutional premise for the state’s observance of women’s rights. 

From the very outset, the constitution-drawing process faced a tension between inclusive processes and inclusive outcomes. The process was shunned by the western media and the Muslim Brotherhood for not including the latter. That the Muslim Brotherhood were not represented in the constituent assembly is a flaw, however, negotiations were difficult from the outset because the Muslim Brothers insisted that there can be no political solution unless President Morsi is reinstated as President, which would have in effect negated the will of the millions who had revolted against his rule. It is also important to note that the constituent assembly did include the Al-Azhar, the bastion of the Sunni world’s religious teaching, the Salafis as well as several Islamist thinkers. By far, the constituent assembly this time round included far greater representation of the political forces and orientations in the country than the previous one. Let us not forget that Al Azhar, the Coptic orthodox Church and various political parties and figures had pulled out of the constitution drawing process of 2012.

In terms of inclusive outcomes, the constitution of 2013 does not fulfil the aspirations of the 25th January revolution. It also has problematic articles vis-à-vis the powers of the army (which existed in the previous constitution as well). However, it goes much further in recognizing the rights of women, youth and the Christian minority in the country than the previous constitution.

What is being suggested here is that there is a politics of omission that betrays a certain level of hypocrisy by western analysts and the media in what constitutes inclusiveness, legitimacy and people power. For example, this constitutional referendum saw people’s participation exceed 45% of those eligible to vote, far higher than the 30% who participated under the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in 2012. Results show an overwhelming positive endorsement for the constitution, estimated at over 90%, in a referendum overseen by international and local observers. However, in press stories like this one under the title “voters views” it has only one perspective, one voice, that of a young woman who has decided to boycott the elections unlike their coverage of the 2012 constitution which at least present the pro-Muslim Brotherhood stance as well as opposing perspectives. 

The politics of omission become particularly conspicuous when discussing the political environment in which the constitutional referendum was playing out. Western attention has pointed, rightly so, to the fact that the political opponents were denied the freedom to openly advocate a no vote among the people and were subjected to police harassment. However, this report and others have failed to mention the violence that voters have experienced in some parts of the country at the hands of pro-Morsi factions. In the village of el Nahya in the governorate of Giza, the Muslim Brotherhood actively blocked people’s access to the polling stations and tried to burn the ballot boxes, ending in clashes with the security. While such violence does not absolve the security from the unrestrained force that they use against the opposition, it does however, challenge the image of a brute police state systematically cracking down at a peaceful group of protestors. This is but one example.

There is no predicting whether Egypt will pursue a path of democratization. The favourable endorsement of the constitution is not a signal that things will necessarily get better, they are not a predictor of the mood on the streets in future. However, when coverage of the constitutional referendum becomes almost exclusively focused on one segment of the population- the Muslim Brothers - and the voices of millions is simply obscured from the narrative of what is going on, it can only generate a disconnect from the pulse on the ground. Undoubtedly, there is a need to press against majoritarian rule that negates the agency of a political minority (the Brothers) and the intention here is not to justify human rights abuses. However, the negation of the rest of the population’s agency and people’s will only serve to make things worse: it creates the conditions for the intensification of ultra-nationalist voices that associate the western negation of voice with their non-recognition of the revolution of 30th of June, 2013. It also makes it harder for local human rights advocates and activists to press the government for accountability for its human rights record because they have to contend with a discourse that points to the west’s double standards in whose rights and voices count.

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About the author

Mariz Tadros is a fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, and author of The Muslim Brotherhood in Contemporary Egypt: Democracy redefined or confined? and the just released, Copts at the crossroads: the challenge of building an inclusive democracy in contemporary Egypt (Oxford University of America Press 2013).