After Egypt’s Referendum: What Lies Ahead?

(This was first published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on its website)

The Egyptian authorities hoped that the constitutional referendum would draw a line under the question of the legitimacy of the July 3 regime and they are showing all the signs of believing that the 98 percent ‘Yes’ vote means they have achieved that. Less than 40 percent of eligible voters took the opportunity to use their vote, but only around 41 percent voted in the first constitutional amendment vote in March 2011, and even less voted for the constitution put together under the watch of ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

At the same time police, aided by the protest law, have managed to restore order to the streets and restore a basic level of security reminiscent of the Mubarak days. Defence Minister General Abdelfattah al-Sisi’s argument that the country just wants to get back on its feet has certainly struck a chord with a large number of Egyptians, if not most, even if they don’t like the military’s intervention in public life. So far so good.

Yet the level of participation was helped by a massive propaganda campaign led by state media and independent media linked to Egypt’s numerous intelligence agencies, as well as politicians, civil rights activists and sheikhs. Police arrested political activists from registered parties who put up posters calling for a ‘No’ vote. Government media have homed in on young people as a problem sector that didn’t vote, leading to improbable Sisi comments to woo the youth that “old faces” from Mubarak’s era would have no place in the new Egypt. 

With both the Islamists’ constitution and the military’s constitution, the fact is that a huge swathe of the country was left apathetic or angry. Given that these votes are not really about the documents in question, that is a problem. Both the military-security apparatus and the Brotherhood have taken an all-or-nothing approach that leaves those who oppose them facing stark choices.

In Sisi’s case that has meant a brutal approach to Islamist rejection on the streets. Since the crushing of Islamist sit-ins at Rabaa al-Adawiya and Al-Nahda in Cairo in August, killing around 750 people in one day, security forces have gone after first, second and many third tier Brotherhood leaders as well as crushing any protests, whether led by Islamists or otherwise. There are now believed to be over 20,000 political detainees in Egypt’s prisons. Police have begun using more live fire and Brotherhood protests have become more violent.

Having come this far, the military regime is determined to do all it takes to crush dissent, yet dissent remains strong.

What chances are there for the survival of such a system? The authors of Morsi’s ouster are in a quandary. They may consider that a civilian president would be seen as weak by their Islamist opponents, prompting them to place the military strongman even more squarely in the Islamists face as president of the country. Yet a Sisi candidacy carries high risks. The country is in a volatile situation and its economy is precarious. Tantawi, as head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, soon found the street seething against him, and one of the great mistakes of the Brotherhood was in being tempted to drink of the poisoned chalice of leadership in such circumstances.

For Sisi, it is not even necessary. He can easily manipulate and oversee from his position as defence minister, not least with the military’s new powers of non-oversight enshrined in the constitution. To take on the job of president would be to open himself to the gradual erosion of his cult status among fans. It would also run the risk of tainting the reputation of the military institution itself, especially if his presidency came to be seen as a failure (a point that Mohammed Hassanein Heikal has said worries Sisi). For this reason there is some speculation that Brotherhood leaders would be relieved if Sisi took the plunge. With the military Other leading the country, they would be able to avoid a serious review of their mistakes, and the group would then remain a powerful anti-modern force, some factions of which, as one former member put it, could succumb to the politics of resistance and obsession with injustice. Public opinion may also slowly turn in their favour. 

Sisi may also be blinded to certain factors of his popularity. He has not put forward a vision to Egyptians of how the country can develop economically or politically. His message has simply been an uber-nationalist ‘No’ to Islamist rule as un-Egyptian and a nostalgic call to order. His rhetorical style, with its home-baked weekend soothers – “I am telling you, don’t worry about Egypt”, “the lion doesn’t eat its cubs” – has gone under the radar of serious analysis because Egypt’s fascistic state propaganda machine has packaged it as sublime and above reproach (while notably reducing coverage of his public pronouncements, adding to the aura of saviour-from-beyond). Yet his tone is reminiscent of a mosque imam at Friday prayers.

Once Sisi dons civilian clothes and has to deal with the daily realities of policy and a restive public, people may well come to tire of him rather quickly. If, as is widely expected, he takes these risks it will be because of a mixture of things: vanity, an honest belief that he has a duty to the country, pressure from inside and abroad (Abu Dhabi, Riyadh), promises of continued funding from the Gulf to ensure four years that can be deemed a success. It would also be naïve to think that, despite the anti-American sentiment that media has whipped up, Washington won’t be appraised of his decision in advance, possibly even for its approval.

Indeed, one interesting issue to watch will be the unfolding of US ties with Egypt. They are heading down a path of normalization. The first stage, the referendum, has been passed; now comes the presidential election and the parliamentary vote. Once the government has gone through all three hooplas, the United States will be able to deal with the July 3 regime as “normal”. The process has already begun. Last month the US Senate Foreign Affairs Committee approved a new law allowing the flow of US aid to Egypt, to get over another law passed in 1961 prohibiting aid to countries where a military coup took place. All while the human rights situation has continued to deteriorate in the regime’s ruthless quest for stability.

Interestingly, what a US normalization of ties with Egypt may do is place pressure on Qatar to ease up on its backing for the Brotherhood and/or force the group to reconsider its positions. Many Egyptian Islamists have found refuge in Doha and Al Jazeera is the prime channel for coverage of opposition to the Sisi regime. To a lesser extent, any more trouble for Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan – indicating that the Islamist period in Turkey could be over – could also force a rethink in Doha, although for the moment this seems only a distant possibility.

Even if both these scenarios came to pass it is still possible that Doha would not give up its backing for the Brotherhood. Doha sees the Brotherhood as a representative of a political movement, political Islam, that it believes represents the centre in Arab politics; it also regards its support for this movement across the Arab world as a card against Saudi Arabia, which backs its own Salafi-Wahhabi clerics and related movements, and thus central to maintaining Qatar’s independence from Riyadh – the defining aim of Qatari policy since Tamim’s father Hamad and his team took power there in 1995. Beyond that, a number of Al Jazeera journalists languish in Egyptian jails, including three dubbed a “terror cell” for feeding protest material from a hotel.

The ultimate problem for the July 3 regime is the brutality it deemed necessary to establish its survival in the first place. The deaths of August 14 were no ordinary event, and the question is whether they remain the original sin that will continue to haunt and undermine the post-Morsi order, or the government succeeds in going beyond. The regime could “win” but with stability requiring a return to the Mubarak police state with its fig leafs of democracy, albeit finer tuned and more skilfully packaged. Can that work in the post-Jan 25 world?

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