Egypt’s Constitutional Poll Seen as Divisive

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On Saturday, the Egyptians went to the polls to determine the fate of the country’s much contested new constitution. The drafting of the constitutions has proven to be a very divisive process with the Muslim Brotherhood supporters left fully in charge after the opposition decided to walk out in protest. The opposition then took to the streets to contest president Muhammad Mursi’s power grab in an effort to derail the possibility of a vote on the new charter. However, after many tense and at times deadly clashes between the opposition and Muslim Brotherhood supporters, as well as threats by the judiciary to refuse to oversee the voting process, the voting has taken place. The consensus is that the Yes camp backed by the Muslim Brotherhood will carry the day. It is less clear though whether the president and the organization will emerge stronger from the debacle.

In a statement released prior to the vote, the Muslim Brotherhood made a push for a high turnout in favor of the yes vote: “Brotherhood urges all Egyptians for positive participation in forthcoming popular referendum on the country’s new national charter, hailed by constitutional experts as the best Egypt has ever had….The great people of Egypt made the peaceful January 25 revolution, which stunned the world as the greatest in history. The people toppled the edifices of injustice, corruption and tyranny, and ousted the most oppressive regime, sacrificing all – blood and souls – in their aspiration for a life of pride and dignity, freedom and social justice. Now is the time to make your decision, to approve a constitution that helps improve your life, and uphold your will and your dignity.”

But Gamal Eid believes the Muslim Brotherhood is only paying lip service to concepts such as dignity, freedom, and social justice. In an op-ed for the Daily News of Egypt, Eid contrasts the stances taken by the Brotherhood with what Eid believes is Islam’s true nature: “The Prophet was a man who lived up to his promises and did not lie, whereas Islamists today are advocates of division, actively engaged in clouding the judgment of those who follow them. I am against violence in all its forms, however even if I was the kind of person who felt its use was sometimes justified, I would still be shocked to hear the rhetoric coming from the mouths of Islamists. This rhetoric contradicts the values of their faith and until now was usually only been heard amongst the lowest sectors of society.”

Given the contested run-up to the vote, it is perhaps not surprising that many of the editorials and opinion pieces see the vote as highly divisive. The Gulf Times editorial asks: “What is essentially at stake is the future of Egypt – will it be Islamist or secular? President Mohamed Mursi has endorsed the new constitution; while the opposition National Salvation Front has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of rigging the vote….Analysts also feel much of the debate is being controlled by a non-consensual approach… Also, the counter-revolution movement has elements of both the new Arab Spring activism, and the Mubarak-era remnants trying to wrest power back. In other words, Egypt is no longer united against the president, like it was last year. In any case, the disputed referendum will not offer an easy way out.”

There are also those who believe that despite perhaps losing the battle on the constitutional vote, the opposition will emerge as the true victors in the end. Asharq Alawsat’s Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed makes the argument that regardless of the outcome “the biggest loser is the ruling party, the Muslim Brotherhood. They have been harmed politically and their image has been tarnished during the unrest over the past few weeks. Dramatic developments such as the dismissal of the public prosecutor, Mursi’s autocratic constitutional declaration and then the drafting of the constitution in just two days have divided the Egyptians with a knife. The remaining three years of Muhammad Mursi’s presidency will be hugely difficult.”

Similarly, the Lebanese Daily Star editorial calls the likely Muslim Brotherhood victory a ‘hollow’ one: “Although only half way through Egypt’s constitutional “referendum,” it seems that even if only a fraction of the charges against the process turn out to be accurate, the vote is far from democratic….Without a large or at least comfortable popular majority, any referendum on a topic this decisive is destined to fail, in so much as its passing will undoubtedly lead to more of the street anger and violence which has already been seen. Passed in such a way, this referendum looks set to sow more dissension and sectarianism.”

Finally, some observers have called on the opposing political forces to take a more constructive approach. Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi sees worrying similarities between the developments in Egypt over the last year and Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution. But in his Egypt Independent column, Ghamari-Tabrizi cautions the opposition against becoming a one-dimensional force: “Conspicuously absent in recent discussions on the situation in Egypt are its similarities with the post-revolutionary struggles in Iran….I think the underlying issue in Egypt is not the content of the constitution, or even the process of drafting it. The issue is discontent with the idea of a Brotherhood administration….But how should these parties face the reality of a Brotherhood administration? What happens if, in a recall election, President Mohamed Morsy wins again and the Brotherhood takes a majority in the Constituent Assembly and Parliament?”

The Peninsula staff believe that following a positive vote on the constitution “the opposition must respect people’s verdict, and continue to use the tool of mass protests and other democratic means to press their demands… President Muhammad Mursi too needs to listen to the opposition and the minorities and try to accommodate their views….Egypt needs peace and all parties must return to normal lives after the vote. Protests and dissent can happen but should not disrupt the functioning of the government and the country. Freedom and democracy will be of no use if the means used to achieve them destabilize the country.”

Despite calling the vote ‘divisive’, the Khaleej Times editorial also believes the best way forward is to bring an end to this chapter of Egyptian history: “Egyptians are gearing up for a long winter of discontent. The referendum on Saturday has further divided the nation, and politically the people are widely split between two ideologues: liberals and Islamists….Whether the vote turns out to be affirmative or rejection of Mursi’s policies, the polarization should come to an end, instantly. Now with Mursi having rescinded his decree of maxim powers, it’s high time the opposition and the ruling party took initiative for broad-based dialogue to set the momentum of nation building. The bitterness of the referendum should be a chapter in history.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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