On Saturday, millions of Egyptians may do something that they have never done before: vote in an election that wasn’t rigged in advance. The Egyptian military, in its new role as interim government, has put forward a constitutional referendum that seemingly offers a chance for people to turn many of their political demands into the nation’s highest law. Some of the proposed reforms include term limits on the presidency, judicial supervision of elections and greater political competition.
On the face of it, it looks like hard-won progress. But conversations with opposition politicians, activists and the youth who drove the revolution in Tahrir Square cast Egypt’s first experiment in democracy as something else: a shrewd military strategy for returning Egypt to the dictatorship they fought to abandon. “You are giving me honey,” says Sherif Mickawi, an opposition political figure, “but that honey is poisoned.”
The biggest complaint heard about the constitutional referendum is that it is coming too soon. Barely five weeks since Egyptians ousted Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians will be casting ballots to revise the constitution and set the stage for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. Who benefits from a fast timetable for elections? Only those who are politically organized. In Egypt, that means the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of the old regime. Youth groups and opposition figures say they need time to coalesce into parties and put forward platforms of their own. Otherwise, people may be able to vote, but the same political machine from the Egyptian autocracy of old will win out. “If they don’t give us time, we will have another dictatorship, just with new faces,” says Mickawi.
And that, say many, is precisely the Egyptian military’s aim. No one benefited more from Mubarak’s rule than the Egyptian generals who became well fed on the perks and privileges that came from being the regime’s central pillar. Few people think they are interested in risking those benefits by guiding a process that leads to a truly independent democratic system. “They know,” says one expert familiar with the military’s thinking, “that when the dust settles, [a democratic government] will come after them.”
The genius of some of the proposed reforms is how they are designed to appeal. For example, one of the proposed changes would forbid future Egyptian presidents from having a foreign wife. It is, in other words, the “Suzanne Mubarak law.” (Mubarak’s wife is half-Welsh.) If you wonder how most Egyptians feel about their former first lady, you need only drive by the charred remains of her office building about a block from Tahrir Square. But while populist measures such as this are being advanced, the Egyptian constitution will continue to grant future presidents extraordinary powers. That worries activists and experts alike. “They are not defanging the presidency enough,” says Harvard professor Tarek Masoud, an expert on Egyptian politics.
It may not be good law, but the generals’ push for a quick referendum is a classic divide-and-conquer strategy. I saw it firsthand sitting over coffee with two young activists. Ibrahim Mohamed and Ahmed Mamdough are good friends. They are both in their 20s, educated and thoughtful. Both have been attending political demonstrations for years. And they both played roles in the revolution, spending days in Tahrir Square. But when I brought up Saturday’s referendum they parted ways. Mohamed plans to vote “no”; Mamdough will vote “yes.” Although no one is confidently predicting the referendum’s outcome, if there is division even in the ranks of the young people, there’s a good chance the military will get the votes it seeks.
With time running short, those who oppose the referendum claim they have only one choice: return to the streets. Activists say they are planning another major protest for Friday. “We have found that the regime is still out there,” says Hayam Ahmed, a schoolteacher who protested in Tahrir Square. “And they are part of the army.”