A referendum won’t dispel Egypt’s democratic fears

In July of last year, the Egyptian military, backed by an coalition of disparate forces, conspired to oust Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohammad Morsi. Since that time, the military and security forces have committed at least four separate acts of mass murder of unarmed Egyptian civilians. Several thousand people, including the heads of four major political parties, have been illegally detained. (Some estimates place the number of those arrested at 19,000.) Freedom of the press, both local and foreign, has been extinguished, and Egypt is now considered more dangerous for journalists than places such as Somalia. Freedom of speech is a distant and fleeting memory, and brutality by the police runs rampant once again.

The regime put in place after the coup has resolutely refused all attempts to negotiate a path back from the precipice.

In July, it produced a road map proposing, among other things, amendments to Egypt’s only freely ratified constitution, and for the holding of presidential and parliamentary elections. So far, the regime has not adhered to the details of its own road map. Amendments to the 2012 constitution were to be completed within a period of 60 days. However, the committee charged with the work disregarded the timeline and prepared an entirely new document that bears no resemblance to the original draft.

The new constitution sets up the army and police as autonomous bodies with no accountability to the state. It enshrines the army’s power and ability to try civilians before military courts for a vast array of potential infractions.

The actual referendum on the constitution that took place this week, in other words, is a red herring. Indeed, many seem to have forgotten that for the past 60 years, Egypt has had a reasonably functioning constitution, and under former President Hosni Mubarak, a fully functioning Parliament as well. Then, as now, fraud, intimidation and repression crippled the country. But the constitution itself was entirely irrelevant to the country’s political and economic reality, with the announced results of votes and referendums in the realm of the imaginary. (Unofficial referendum results this week show that 98 percent of voters have approved the new constitution.)

It is unfortunate that the United States and the European Union, represented by Secretary of State John Kerry and Baroness Catherine Ashton, respectively, have seen fit to lend credibility to this referendum by claiming that it is an important step along the path to democracy. Instead, they should heed the recommendations of the lines of Anthony Dworkin and Helene Michou of the European Council on Foreign Relations, whose recent report, “Egypt’s Unsustainable Crackdown,” rightly assesses that the referendum and subsequent parliamentary and presidential elections are merely intended to give the regime a veneer of legality and respectability. The report concludes that Egypt is not moving toward meaningful democracy or stability, and recommends that the European Union resist the current regime’s attempts at normalization.

Regrettably, the positions that the EU and U.S. foreign-policy czars have taken toward Egypt risk rendering both Europe and America irrelevant to nascent democracies. This is particularly true given the fact that the African Union, for instance, has clearly described last summer’s removal of Morsi as a coup, and has suspended Egypt’s membership as a consequence.

In the last six months, those Egyptians who refuse to give up on democracy have been out in the streets, risking both life and liberty, to protest the current state of affairs. The referendum will not change that. Most of these individuals are young, even as it was older Egyptians who predominated in the voting queues for the referendum. In the last two years, young Egyptians have finally tasted freedom and democracy. They will not settle for the neutered version that the generations of their parents and grandparents experienced.

So, what is the way forward? Real reconciliation is not possible without the release of prisoners, full, fair, and transparent investigations into the multiple massacres of 2013, and the removal of the army from political life. Certainly, citizens of both the United States and the member countries of the European Union would settle for no less within their own borders.

Egyptian-born Wael Haddara is a former senior adviser to ousted Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi. He advised Morsi during his 2011 presidential campaign on matters of communication and foreign policy. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 20, 2014, on page 7.




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