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Latest From Cairo: ‘The Vote Was About Everything But The Constitution’

Our Thursday, Jan. 16 hour on the latest constitutional referendum in Egypt tracked the progress of a country torn by protests and political instability ever since the spontaneous 2011 uprising that ousted former President Hosni Mubarak.

The constitutional referendum this week, written largely by the Egyptian military currently running the country, is said to have garnered as much as 98% percent in favor during two days of voting. McClatchy Newspaper’s Middle East bureau chief Nancy Youssef joined us from Cairo to break down the Egyptian mood, meaning and future.

She explained that the “yes” vote was a prediction even before voting finished.

“That was the presumption even before the balloting count began because the media campaign was so aggressive, urging people to vote, that voting yes was a reaffirmation of the 25 of January Revolution in 2011, a reaffirmation of what they call the second revolution on June 30th, the one that lead to Mohamed Morsi’s ouster. And frankly, there was a feeling that, those who voted no there was a fear at least that they could face arrest, and they certainly were silenced in terms of posting campaign posters and outwardly urging people to vote no. And so, the assumption has always been that this would go forward and the initial count puts the approval as high as 98 percent.”

The vote was also seen as a referendum on the powers and leadership of General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, an unannounced but highly favored front-runner in the future presidential campaign in the country.

“That’s right. And also that it’s a sort of a count, and a referendum on General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the Minister of Defense, the de facto leader of Egypt, the one who announced Morsi’s ouster and the suspension of the Morsi constitution. He’s the presumed front-runner for the still unannounced presidential elections here and so this vote was in a sense about everything but the constitution. About where Egypt is, the state of the military, on Sisi and for some, the sort of death knell for the Muslim Brotherhood and its vision for Egypt. “

The new constitution is a far cry from broad-based popular democracy, Youssef pointed out.

“In fact, the new constitution allows the current Minister of Defense, Sisi, to remain in office for eight years. regardless of who is elected president. And so it begs the question of what would happen if he did run, certainly it suggests that he would have a say in terms of who would become the Defense Minster if he became president and it really reaffirms the military’s grip back on the governance of this country. I think what’s confusing for so many people is this is essentially the use of a democratic process to affirm the return of a quasi police state.”

The referendum gave big numbers to the “yes” side, but it hardly a popular cause, Youssef said.

“I can tell you, Having been here for two years and having covered several elections, that anecdotal the polling stations were not as full as they once were, the ballot boxes were not as full as they once were and the process was not as transparent as it had been in the past, where we had thousands, sixteen thousand monitors in the past, we had a fraction of that number this time. It certainly felt different in the sense of a transparent, open process where there was suspense, if you will. This time, everybody went in knowing the results. And the only question was how many people would come out to vote and how big the margin would be in favor of the constitution. That said, the government position is that the turnout was higher this time than it was during the 2012 vote for the Morsi constitution, with no real independent monitors consistently at the polling stations, there’s no real way to question or validate that number”

The next round of elections still hasn’t been scheduled, but much of the political climate in the country remains on edge.

“We’re still waiting to find out, there’s been some discussion about whether there would be  parliamentary elections or presidential election first. I should note that Sisi’s remarks — [that he would run for President if the people asked him to] that you mention I think were a week ago — are very reminiscent of General Abdel Nasser’s comments, who was the first president of Egypt after the overthrow of the King, he took office in 1954 and he used that language as well. And it’s important because one of the things that Sisi has been trying to do, and the military has been trying to do is to remind Egypt of a time when the military had liberated them, had brought them freedom and an independent state. And so it’s very interesting when you go to places like Tahrir Square, you’ll see posters featuring Sisi’s picture and alongside of it is Nasser’s picture and not Mubarak’s, and so that language of that and in line with that love that many people here have for Nasser. We don’t know when elections will be. We expect an announcement in the next few weeks about that. The original announcement when the Morsi government was overthrown was that we would have elections by February. It doesn’t seem that we’re on the schedule to do that, but you never know in Egypt.”

How do you read the new constitution in Egypt? Is the troubled country finally on a path to established plural democracy? Or stuck in a military-controlled vortex?

Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook, Tumblr and @OnPointRadio.

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