Monday, March 21, 2011

Egyptian referendum reinforces establishment

From the Times:

CAIRO — Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on constitutional changes on Sunday that will usher in rapid elections, with the results underscoring the strength of established political organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and the weakness of emerging liberal groups.

More than 14.1 million voters, or 77.2 percent, approved the constitutional amendments; 4 million, or 22.8 percent, voted against them. The turnout of 41 percent among the 45 million eligible voters broke all records for recent elections, according to the Egyptian government.

"This is the first real referendum in Egypt's history," said Mohamed Ahmed Attia, the chairman of the supreme judicial committee that supervised the elections, in announcing the results. "We had an unprecedented turnout because after Jan. 25 people started to feel that their vote would matter."

President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power last month, 18 days after demonstrations against his three decades in power began Jan. 25. The referendum result paved the way for early legislative elections as early as June and a presidential race possibly in August. The ruling military council had sought the rapid timetable to ensure its own speedy exit from running the country.

The military council has been somewhat vague about the next steps. But Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen told the newspaper Al Shorouk in an interview published Sunday that the generals would issue a constitutional declaration to cover the changes and then set dates for the vote once the results were announced.

The Muslim Brotherhood and remnant elements of the National Democratic Party, which dominated Egyptian politics for decades, were the main supporters of the referendum. They argued that the election timetable would ensure a swift return to civilian rule.

Members of the liberal wing of Egyptian politics mostly opposed the measure, saying that they lacked time to form effective political organizations. They said early elections would benefit the Brotherhood and the old governing party, which they warned would seek to write a constitution that centralizes power, much like the old one.

Yes, it all happened rather quickly, and it's hardly surprising that the results benefitted establishment elements over more progressive ones. Indeed, as Steven Taylor notes, "[a]nother not so small issue is that the military will retain executive power (as it has before declared) until presidential elections, meaning that the military is going to retain substantial influence over the transition."

On the one hand, the situation remains unclear. On the other hand, at least Egypt's in a better place than Libya (or any number of other places), and at least the possibility of liberalization remains. The key is not so much whether liberal forces prevail now but whether a system is set up to allow those emerging forces to prevail in future. The worry is that the new Egypt will look a lot like the old Egypt, with Mubarak replaced by a more engaged military and with the political landscape dominated by two generally illiberal parties that have no interest in helping to usher in meaningful, democratic change.

But it's better than nothing -- and certainly better than what was there before.

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