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To be clear, the Egyptian military does not aspire towards total control of the state, with all of the responsibilities entailed thereby—what they want, what they have always wanted, is to be beyond accountability to the civilian population, to have their budget immune to external oversight or reduction, to reserve the right to intercede as they deem necessary in the political affairs of the state without any reciprocal checks by legislators, and to respond with impunity against those whom they deem to be a threat to their social order.
It was in the service of these ends that they deposed Husni Mubarak: a maneuver designed to preserve, not change, the status quo. In the aftermath of their first coup they unyieldingly struggled to limit the civilian government from exerting any meaningful control over critical state institutions—efforts which were bolstered by other elements of the “deep state” with complimentary vested interests in perpetuating the existing order—culminating in a second coup against Egypt’s first democratically-elected president less than a year into his term.
It’s been a tumultuous affair, but it appears as though the junta’s efforts have paid off.
Among the primary grievances of the protestors in Egypt and across the MENA region was the corruption and overreach of the military, police, and intelligence services. Nonetheless, Egypt’s new draft constitution renders all of these institutions completely unaccountable to the civilian populace or their elected representatives.
Not only does the constitution enshrine the al-Selmi communiqué with regards to the military, it also expands many of its key provisions to the police, judiciary, and religious authorities. It allows all of these actors to substantially intervene in the civilian government while preventing said government from interfering in these institutions. In this vein, it establishes the indefinite power of the military to arrest and try civilians while rendering not only the military, but also the police, immune to civilian prosecution.
Of course, one of the key aspirations of the coalition who rallied to overthrow Mursi was to establish Egypt as a secular state—these protestors will find their aspirations dashed as well (perhaps rightly so):
Sure, the draft does include provisions which prohibit the participation of political parties “formed on the basis of religion”—an article which will certainly be used as the legal pretext to abolish the Freedom and Justice Party and any other political force with perceived organizational or ideological ties to the Muslim Brotherhood; even in the absence of this legal framework, the Brothers have been persecuted relentlessly since the coup which removed Muhammad Mursi (contrary to the rhetoric, the Brotherhood remains popular: after all, if few Egyptians supported them there would be little need to exclude the Brothers from elections–they would fail on their own. They are being banned, not because the people hate them, but on the contrary, because so many continue to support them).
However, considering the vast sums of aid (already in excess of $16 billion) being poured into the country by Saudi Arabia in order to stave-off Egypt’s imminent collapse (and therefore, an authentic revolution), we can expect that the salafi al-Nour party will be mysteriously exempt from this new provision. Clearly, this is their understanding as well, as they have unequivocally endorsed the draft constitution, just as they endorsed the coup—shrewdly angling for greater influence for themselves and their Saudi benefactors. The army, for its part, is trying to lure the Islamists to their side in a bid to alienate the Brotherhood.
That is, the laws are not about establishing Egypt as a secular state—instead, they are designed to exclude particular influential political forces from the public sphere; consider:
The new military constitution also declares the sharia as the foundation of all of Egypt’s law. While the language assigning the responsibility of interpreting these laws to al-Azhar has been removed, considering that al-Azhar is THE center for Islamic jurisprudence in Egypt (and for much of the Sunni world), this redaction is little more than cosmetic. In fact, the religious authorities have played a central role in legitimizing the coup and subsequent crackdown–as a reward, the new draft actually places al-Azhar’s leadership beyond the sphere of civilian accountability as well and permits only those imams with credentials from al-Azhar to preach, granting them a virtual monopoly over Egypt’s primary religion. They could never have dreamed of such influence under Mursi.
Simultaneously, the constitution restricts the right to worship exclusively to the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Even some from among these religions may be excluded on the basis that they are not “proper” Muslims, Christians, etc.–in fact, these efforts are already well-underway.
Of course, many Egyptians opposed the coup and have been unyielding in their opposition. Others who supported the coup under the naïve assumption that the military would step back and meaningfully empower a liberal, secular, civilian government have come to see (perhaps, too late) that the SCAF has never shared their values and aspirations. Most of the Egyptian public was against the coup at the time it was carried out, and despite a temporary surge in popular support for the military in the aftermath, most seem to be returning to their initial conviction that it was a mistake to depose Mursi.
Nonetheless, given the public’s general fatigue with social unrest, the near-total lack of external oversight over the Egyptian government, and the ruthless crackdown on dissent within Egypt—one way or another, it was assured that the referendum would pass with impressive numbers. And by this time next year a new civilian government will likely be elected.
The fact that these officials will have little control over critical state institutions even as said institutions wield undue influence over the government, that the social and economic injustices which motivated the uprising will not only persist but will be written into the state’s founding document, that the rights and freedoms the protestors sought will not have been meaningfully achieved, that the oft-maligned influence of the United States is being traded for a more ominous and far-reaching role for the anti-democratic ”Club of Kings“—the new constitution conveniently papers-over these concerns.
The Results Are In…
The interim government has just announced that the results of the referendum: 38.6% of eligible voters went to the polls, with 98% voting in favor of the measure. We can set aside concerns that these sort of victory margins (2% dissent opposed) evoke the “elections” which dictators frequently hold to put up a façade of legitimacy, especially given the total lack of external oversight over any part of the process and the well-documented suppression of any campaigns opposing the measure–there is another disturbing paradox which presents this from being a “ringing endorsement” of the coup, namely the low voter turnout.
When the ”Islamist” constitution was approved in a referendum in which a similar portion of the electorate (32.9%) turned out to vote, the opposition decried the poll as illegitimate: the overwhelming support by those who turned out to vote may not reflect the will of the silent (2/3) majority who did not. Somehow these concerns have mysteriously vanished now that the shoe is on the other foot.
Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, it is impossible to infer much from uncast ballots precisely because they were not cast. That said, there seems to be greater empirical support to suggest that a plurality of public opinion is likely against the draft, if one was into those sorts of divinations.
Insofar as we take the numbers at their face value, the one thing the results suggest (both the overwhelming support for the measure among those who turned out, and the low overall turnout) is that the Egyptian public remains deeply polarized–accordingly, it is likely the referendum will exacerbate, rather than mitigate, the political crisis in Egypt. Perhaps, then, it is fortunate that the new constitution renders elections largely superfluous, henceforth. All that is left is for Gen. al-Sisi to “run” for president, and the Egyptian counterrevolution will be complete.
Musa al-Gharbi is a research fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC); he has a M.A. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. His website (www.fiatsophia.org) includes links to follow him on social media or subscribe to his posts. A version of this article was originally published by SISMEC.