Egypt is reaping the first tangible gains from the roadmap agreed upon following June 30 and the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Today, Egyptians are heading to the ballot box to cast their votes in a referendum on the new constitution drafted by the 50-member constitution committee. This step is being closely watched throughout the entire world and, more importantly, by Egyptians themselves—on the basis that endorsing the constitution will make everyone feel that the wheels are turning towards building the institutions of their second republic.
No one inside or outside Egypt doubts the result of the referendum, as indications from the Egyptian street show clearly that there is a popular desire among the electorate to ratify the constitution and move forward with the roadmap. Most political parties—aside from the Muslim Brotherhood—have called on their supporters to vote “yes” on the new constitution. So the question mark is not over the ultimate result of the referendum, but over the percentage of Egyptians who will go to the ballot boxes. This will serve as evidence of the mood of the Egyptian street and the level of support for the current transitional phase.
Here, we must point out that, historically, elections and referendums in Egypt have not enjoyed high voter turnout for obvious reasons. However, there has been much higher voter turnout since January 2011. Despite the important votes held during this transitional phase, which have served to decide the political future of the country, voter turnout has never exceeded much more than 50 percent. There is now an expectation that the turnout for the referendum on the constitution will be much higher, granting the interim government a strong mandate to move forward and complete the roadmap.
Reading the general mood in Egypt today, one emerges with the impression that voter turnout at the referendum will be very high as a result of a clear desire in the country to overcome the experience of the past three years—events which were full of volatility and chaos, and governed by an atmosphere of uncertainty. It has become clear from the experiences of the past three years that the majority of Egyptians—even if they have reservations and concerns—want to preserve the structure of the state and develop its institutions. They do not want to import social models where militias under different names—political, sectarian or tribal—prevail over society. There is also another very clear indication that Egyptian society has now entered into a full-blown confrontation with the use of religion in politics.
If the referendum on the constitution and its subsequent ratification represent a key step towards restoring normality to the state and society—moving forward with the modernization process—the steps that will follow this will be even more important, arousing even greater controversy. However, there is no room to move backwards, because the only alternative to moving forward is chaos and a return to square one.
At this point, we must also say that the Egyptian political elite have demonstrated a great degree of responsibility and maturity in dealing with the process of drafting the constitution. The discussions regarding the process were difficult, but ultimately an agreement was reached. This is also what is needed in the next phase, which will see two more important milestones on the Egyptian transitional roadmap, namely presidential and parliamentary elections. It seems clear that an agreement must be reached regarding which election should take place first according to the public interest.
These political forces can be excused for the state of confusion that prevailed after January 25, because nobody was prepared for what happened or had a clear roadmap on how to resolve the situation. This ultimately led to mistakes. These political forces were unprepared due to the long political stagnation over the previous decades. This allowed the only group that was politically organized and able to mobilize the public to the ballot box to jump to the forefront, while other political forces remained divided or pursued romantic political delusions. Real politics requires other tools and methods.
Now, we have three years of experience and a society whose level of awareness and interaction with politics is greater than ever before. There can be no excuses for repeating the old mistakes that prevailed over the pre-June 30 transitional phase, whether we are talking about presidential or parliamentary elections, reforming the political climate, clamping down on extremist discourse which calls for violence, or working to establish the right to political disagreement within a civilized framework. It is also important that the political discourse and media coverage be based on facts, so that the level of expectations is not raised unrealistically.
Indicators show optimism that Egypt is on its way out of this phase. But again we must acknowledge that the post-referendum phase will not be easy; it will require a lot of effort and hard work.