Inside Story

Egypt referendum: A test of public opinion

As opposition groups boycott the vote, we ask how credible it can be and what it means for the future of the country.

Egyptians have voted on a new constitution, in what could be a defining process for the country or something that could further tear it apart.

The two day constitutional referendum that ended on Wednesday was the first big test of public opinion in Egypt since the last one that brought the country’s first democratically-elected President Mohammed Morsi to power in 2012, before he was toppled in a military coup last year.

From the very beginning of the coup until now there have been thousands who have been killed ... detained and tortured inside coup prisons. So what kind of constitution are we talking about? Is it a constitution that enables the coup to take more power and assume more power over Egyptians? .... It is an autocratic process by a military lobby group who is trying to assume power for itself.

by Youssof Salheen, a spokesman for the students anti-coup movement

This time it was a referendum on a rewritten constitution, undoing much of what Morsi introduced.

Those who backed his overthrow are embracing it, while those who opposed it, including the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood, opted for a boycott of the vote.

Given all the unrest Egypt has seen, security was tight during the two days of voting.

A yes vote – seen as a foregone conclusion – is likely to pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections, with the army chief, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, given more power over everyday life.

Critics say the new constitution will give Egypt’s military and political elite more power on a day-to-day basis, while supporters believe it will improve human rights.

But how will Egypt change if it is voted in?

Religion is an important part of the Egyptian society, and in the proposed constitution, Islam will remain the state religion. But there will be no more political parties based on religion – a setback for movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.

And Al Azhar, the Sunni world’s pre-eminent theological institution, will no longer need to be consulted by lawmakers on Islamic matters.

The president will have the power to dissolve parliament. And the military will have the authority to choose the defence minister for the next eight years.

Military trials for civilians will continue, but only for specific cases. The proposed constitution will allow the judiciary to also appoint senior positions. And in the police force, its supreme council must be consulted on any new law affecting them, potentially blocking any attempts at reform.

Voter turnout for the referendum will be an important indicator. The last charter, under Morsi, won 63.8 percent backing, but less than a third of eligible voters turned out. This vote will need more to give the state an electoral seal of legitimacy.

Emotions in Egypt have been running high, both in favour and against the referendum. 

Amr Farouk, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood-led National Coalition to Support Legitimacy (NCSL), said: “The National Coalition to Support Legitimacy announces its decision to boycott this invalid referendum that is being conducted by the bloody, fascist coup authority and the coalition is calling upon the Egyptian people to boycott it.”

Meanwhile Nader Bakkar, a member of the Salafist Al-Nour Party, said: “Moving away from the constitutional amendments would lead to chaos, these are all factors that affected Al-Nour party’s position, and we can confirm that not only are we saying yes, but we hope that all Egyptians would also vote ‘yes’.”

And Mohamed Fawaz, a member of the opposition movement 6 April Democratic Front, said: “We can never participate and give legitimacy to a regime which fools the people and tries to act like it is a civil democratic regime, while it is neither democratic nor civil.”

Amr Moussa, the head of the constituent assembly feels: “This constitution is a reflection of Egypt’s current situation, along with the challenges Egypt and the Egyptian society face. Therefore, there is a great focus on freedoms, rights and the benefits of the Egyptian people without neglecting any segment of society.”

The vote is an important test for Egypt’s army-backed leaders, but with opposition groups deciding to boycott the referendum, how credible can it be?

To discuss this, Inside Story presenter Kamahl Santamaria is joined by guests: Hussein Ibish, a commentator, author and contributor to Foreign Policy magazine; Marwa Maziad, a specialist in civil-military relations in the Middle East, who is currently teaching at the University of Washington in Seattle; and Youssof Salheen, a spokesman for the students anti-coup movement.

“I think Egypt needs a constitution and I think there is a national consensus that the one that was rammed through under the Morsi presidency was rammed through in several different ways. He issued a constitutional declaration that gave himself presidential powers and then he rescinded that after protests, but he made people more comfortable with the very pro-Islamist constitution that was crafted by a stacked committee.

“So I think part of the huge, overwhelming national consensus backing his ouster was against the old constitution. So Egypt needs a new constitution. Is this process perfect? No. But Egypt can’t go forward without a new constitution.”

Hussein Ibish, a commentator, author and contributor to Foreign Policy magazine