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Egypt’s referendum: Why “No” lost and what to do next

Rather than crying over spilt milk, the focus now should be on making the best out of a less-than-perfect path towards Egypt’s future

Ashraf Swelam , Saturday 26 Mar 2011

When I headed to the polling station to vote “No” in last Saturday’s referendum, I was driven by an overwhelming combination of emotions and aspirations. I said “No” because I believed our martyrs deserved nothing less than a clean break with the past and a new beginning. I said “No” because I approved of neither the package of constitutional amendments, nor the process they set in motion. I said “No” because I believed the seeds of a new and better Egypt can’t be sowed except after cleaning up the remains of the ousted rotten regime.

Now that “Yes” has won, it is our duty to stop, assess, and learn before deciding how to move forward. Here are the hard facts:


Only 41 per cent of eligible voters (18 million out of 45 million) turned out to vote. Many hailed this as historic, as a major step forward. I respect that, but forgive me for not joining the party. Forty one per cent means that we are still living with a silent majority (like it or not, 59 per cent is). By the same token, 41 per cent is also a lower participation figure than most countries at Egypt’s level of economic development.

That’s our first challenge right there, and indeed the challenge of this country as a whole in the weeks and months ahead and for years to come: how to reach this still-silent majority, to talk them out of their cocoons, to educate them about what is at stake, but equally important to listen and learn from them as Egypt inches closer to this hastily organised yet utterly most critical of parliamentary and presidential elections.

Tahrir Square is not Egypt

I will be the first to admit that I am literally shocked that Cairo did not go the “No” vote way. After all, this is the revolution’s ground zero. But in light of the general vote, I am very thankful that it didn’t, otherwise this wakeup call would have been muted: “No” lost in each and every governorate, period.

As much as many hoped for this referendum to be a choice between “Yes” and “No” based on a careful consideration of the subject matter of the proposed, now approved, constitutional amendments and the process they set in motion, this wasn’t the case for the majority of voters. Much has been said about the abuse of religion by the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and other political factions with religious backgrounds to sway voters in the direction of “Yes” and I have no doubt that some of that has taken place, and it is appalling. But the fact of the matter is that the real choice that people were making was between two other things: stability and instability.

How did we get here?

First, Tahrir Square is really not Egypt. Calls for stability and restoration of normalcy, in a grave mistake by most of the revolutionary forces, were naively equated with counter-revolution. As a result, such calls were not only unheeded, they were dismissed out of hand.

Second is the ambiguity in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces steeped the “No” option: in presenting the Egyptian people with a choice, the council complemented the “Yes” option, and from the start, with a clear statement of what would follow if that option became the people’s choice. In contrast, the “No” option was treated as a vagabond. Nobody knew where it was coming from or where it is headed. Nobody, even those most ardent supporters of “No”, myself included, could answer the simple most basic question: What’s next? The end result was that for many Egyptians “Yes” meant a host of things, including stability, a clear political path that ensures a speedy return to normalcy, or even better democracy, as well as the military’s exit from the political equation. “No” in contrast was a jump into the unknown.

Politics is on

Third, at a time when a new game was on, revolutionary forces did not only come to the field in the wrong wear, but also criticised others for being in the right wear. The referendum was all politics. Everything from now to the approval of a new constitution will also be politics. The sooner the revolutionaries realise that, while not lifting their eyes off the demands of their revolution, the better off they will be, and the better off Egypt will be. This means a host of things:

1. Insisting on a level playing field: the military council will soon be laying down a constitutional declaration outlining the rules governing the political races that are about to unfold. Now —not tomorrow —is the time to make, and in a forceful coordinated way, demands pertaining to political parties, campaigns, the role of the media, and prohibitions on the misuse of religion.

2. Revolution 2.0 is no longer enough. Political campaign 101 is badly needed. It is time to move from Facebook to face time, and fast.

3. Egypt’s upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections will most likely (and unfortunately) be about individuals, not political agendas. And since “who” continues to be more important than “what” in a society where the influence of family and clan-based loyalties remains unabated, this is the time to make stars from revolutionaries in the districts where they belong.

The revolutionary dream is now over and politics must be embraced and welcomed. The battle for the soul and future of Egypt is on.


The writer is an Egyptian diplomat and a Yale University World Fellow.


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