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Egypt's Referendum: Nervous Steps Forward

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 21, 2011

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Despite the opposition of the revolutionary youth who led the fight to overthrow president Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian population approved the military-sponsored referendum on changes to the constitution. CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook says "the overwhelming 'yes' vote suggests that the Egyptian military was correct in believing that this package of proposed amendments would be enough for the vast majority of Egyptians." He says that Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League, is a leading candidate for the presidency and unlike the young revolutionaries, Moussa is "a member of the establishment, which doesn't necessarily make the military uncomfortable."

The Egyptian people overwhelmingly approved (NYT) amendments to the constitution backed by the Egyptian military. But the young democratic forces that led the drive to push out president Hosni Mubarak were opposed to these amendments. What do you make of the political situation?

First, the conduct of the referendum was by and large quite good. There have been some allegations of fraud, and the commission that was appointed to oversee the referendum says that it will seriously investigate them. This was perhaps the freest and fairest election Egypt has held in decades. The voter turnout, although it was only 41 percent of the population, was a dramatic increase from what we've seen in the most recent elections where the turnout has been 10 percent or less. So why would the revolutionary youth and other groups that have significant legitimacy at this time--as well as people like Moussa and [Mohammed] ElBaradei--oppose this package of amendments?

Describe the amendments.

They promise to limit to two the number of presidential terms [Mubarak had been in office for thirty years], level the playing field for those who want to run for president, strengthen the independent judiciary, and abolish important aspects of the emergency laws that were written into the constitution in 2007. But overall, the new amendments do not do much to alter the balance of power in the Egyptian political system. The president remains extraordinarily powerful. The amendments do nothing about due process and neglect other authoritarian aspects of the state. There is concern that these types of problems, combined with a political process that is moving so quickly, could provide opportunities for non-democratic forces. For example, the Muslim Brotherhood benefits, and more importantly perhaps so do the remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party. The concern was that in a short time span, those groups who are largely believed to be non-democratic, yet have resources at their disposal and the ability to organize, will with the passage of this referendum have an advantage in terms of organizing and setting themselves up to prevail in the coming parliamentary and presidential elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which supported the amendments, has an Islamic platform, although they have tempered it in recent months. Do you think the Egyptian people in approving the amendments so overwhelmingly are more conservative and more religious than the revolutionaries?

It's a difficult question to answer because Egypt is a country of more than eighty million people. It is both cosmopolitan and conservative. It's liberal and conservative; it's leftist and rightist, democratic and authoritarian. The uprising that began on January 25 was inspired in large part by liberals and leftists, people who were looking to live in more democratic and open societies. That's not to suggest that the Muslim Brotherhood was completely absent. There were Muslim Brotherhood youth that cooperated with these other youth groups that led the uprising. It's true as an organization that the Brotherhood didn't join the protests until January 28 when it really started to look like they could bring down Mubarak and the regime.

The great fear is not only that these established groups, like the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, will have a leg up in terms of organizing and resources, but the emergence of many different groups will cannibalize each other.

The overwhelming "yes" vote suggests that the Egyptian military was correct in believing that this package of proposed amendments would be enough for the vast majority of Egyptians. The real question is what is going to unfold between now and the parliamentary elections, which are slated either for June or September and the presidential election by December. You can certainly expect to see a flowering of politics in Egypt, and the emergence of all kinds of different groups. The great fear is not only that these established groups, like the NDP and the Muslim Brotherhood, will have a leg up in terms of organizing and resources, but the emergence of many different groups will cannibalize each other and they won't be able to establish a broad-based liberal democratic party, which will once again give the advantage to groups that were established and well-organized and well-resourced before Mubarak fell.

Talk about the Muslim Brotherhood, which is by all accounts the best organized right now.

One should expect the Brotherhood to play an important and influential role in Egyptian politics in this new era. It has the best claim to be a mass movement in Egypt. It has survived a number of attempts to undermine it through the course of its history. It was founded in late 1927 and early 1928, and with the political change happening in Egypt [now], the Brotherhood is well-positioned to be influential. The military has reached out to the Brotherhood, recognizing that it is going to be deeply intertwined in Egypt's political life. The question is whether the Brotherhood will remain true to the program it has put forth over the last couple of years about reform and political change, progress and modernization. The question is whether they will remain true to that program or whether they are using the desire for political change and progressive reform for their own inherently anti-democratic agenda.

There are some who say that this organization has evolved. You can tell by its rhetoric. You can see that there is a younger group of reformers who have emerged who want to directly engage in the political system. They can be a group like Turkey's ruling Justice and Development Party, which is a group whose core constituency is pious but nevertheless upholds a political system that isn't explicitly religious. It's a critical question. The Brotherhood has never repudiated its historic goals of building an Islamic state by Islamizing society from below, but much has changed in Egypt right now. We won't know exactly what the Brotherhood does until it gets directly involved in politics in a free and unfettered way.

Let's talk about Amr Moussa. He said he was voting against the referendum because it was too quickly put together. As head of the Arab League, he also criticized the Western powers' air attacks on Libya even though the Arab League had called for the UN Security Council to approve a no fly zone. Is he playing games now?

The question is whether the Brotherhood will remain true to the program it has put forth over the last couple of years about reform and political change, progress and modernization.

Amr Moussa is now fully engaged in a presidential campaign to become Egypt's next president. He has the same concerns about the rapid pace of the political process that the military has laid out. Like many others, he fears it plays into the hands of non-democratic forces. At the same time, his position on the Western aerial campaign against Qaddafi reflects in part the fact that not all Egyptians are 100 percent in support of this campaign.

He is exceedingly popular; he moved far enough away from Mubarak over the course of the last decade when he headed the Arab League to make him credible with a lot of people in Egypt. He also is still a member of the establishment, which doesn't necessarily make the military uncomfortable. He doesn't have the same kind of revolutionary street credentials that would cause him to roil the military. From the point of view of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is now in charge of Egypt, an Amr Moussa presidency and candidacy would not be a bad thing. He remains popular among large parts of the Egyptian population. He may not be popular among the revolutionary youth, but we cannot lose sight of the fact that even if there were--as one of my favorite Egyptian bloggers pointed out yesterday--some twenty million people on the streets the day that Mubarak was ultimately toppled, that leaves another sixty million people who had not joined in this uprising.

Are you surprised that Egypt did not contribute anything to this anti-Qaddafi force? They have the best military in the Arab region.

I'm not sure that they haven't contributed anything. I don't think that U.S. officials were making things up when they said that Arab countries were expected to contribute in their own unique ways. Certainly as the country on Libya's eastern border, and with a fleet of one hundred F-16s, one can question why the Egyptians are not directly involved. It's a function of a couple of things: one, the deep conservatism of the Egyptian military command itself not necessarily wanting to throw the Egyptians into a fight, even one that is as one-sided as establishing the no-fly zone over Libya; and two, the armed forces has its hands full with the domestic politics at the moment, and anything that detracts from that is a side show.

On the other hand, there have been reports that the Egyptian military has been involved in funneling weapons at the behest of the United States and its coalition partners to the rebellion in the eastern part of Libya. And once again, like Amr Moussa's position, Egyptian public opinion is not united on this question. Certainly there are people who recognize the threat Qaddafi poses to his own people, but there are others who are whipping up the notion that the United States and the West are engaged in some sort of neo-colonial project again.

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