Gwynne Dyer: Egyptians head to the polls again for a constitutional referendum
General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the coup against Egypt’s elected president last July, has one of the finest collections of military headgear in the entire Middle East. Perhaps that’s why he has still not admitted that he plans to become the next president: he can’t decide which hat to throw into the ring.
His own explanation for his shyness comes straight out of the Aspiring Dictator’s Handbook: “If I nominate myself, there must be a popular demand, and a mandate from my army,” he told the state-owned paper Al-Ahram. “When Egyptians say something, we obey, and I will never turn my back on Egypt.”
Egyptian generals are deeply patriotic people, and three others before Sisi have sacrificed their own desire for a quiet life in order to rule Egypt: Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70), Anwar Sadat (1970-81), and Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011). In fact, the last three years have been the only time in the life of the great majority of Egyptians when a general has not been running the country, and Sisi seems ready to make the supreme sacrifice too.
A mandate from the army shouldn’t be hard to get, since he runs the whole organisation. And as far as “popular demand” is concerned, Sisi is clearly planning to use a “yes” vote in this week’s referendum on the new constitution as proof that the people want him for president.
The new constitution will be the third in four years. It replaces the one that was written and adopted (also by referendum) during the brief, unhappy rule of President Mohamed Morsi, who took office on June 30, 2012, and was overthrown on July 3, 2013. It removes the “Islamic” changes that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood wrote into the last one, which should appeal to secular Egyptians, but that’s not what makes it attractive to General Sisi.
The new clauses that only a soldier could love include one that gives the Egyptian military the right to appoint the defence minister, and another that says the military budget will not be subject to civilian oversight. It also retains the much-criticised clause that allows civilians to be tried in military courts. Sisi reckons enough civilians will vote for it anyway, some because they hate the Islamists and some because they are just tired of all the upheavals.
Maybe they will, because the whole Arab world is suffering from revolution fatigue: the “Arab awakening” has caused such turbulence that many people would find a return to the old dictatorships almost comforting. It’s true even in Syria, where some of the rebels are starting to talk about making a deal with the Assad regime in order to isolate the Islamist extremists and hasten the end of the war.
There has been no war in Egypt, but about a thousand of Morsi’s supporters were massacred in the streets of Cairo by the “security forces” last summer, and the Muslim Brotherhood has been declared a terrorist organisation. There have been many thousands of arrests, not only of senior Muslim Brotherhood members but recently of secular critics of the military regime as well.
Egyptians are frightened and exhausted, and Sisi apparently thinks they will gratefully accept a return to army rule (behind a democratic facade). But his nervousness is showing: there’s barely a wall in Cairo that is not covered with “Yes” posters and pictures of Sisi, while people trying to put up “No” posters get arrested. Sisi is probably right to be nervous.
In late September, three months after the coup, Zogby Research Services carried out an extensive opinion poll in Egypt for the Sir Bani Yas Forum in Abu Dhabi. It revealed that confidence in the army had already dropped from 93 percent to 70 percent, and it probably has gone on dropping.
General Sisi and former President Morsi had almost equal support in the country—46 percent for Sisi, 44 percent for Morsi (who now faces trial for “inciting his supporters to carry out premeditated murder” and various other alleged crimes).
But Morsi’s trial was postponed last week from January 8 to February 1, allegedly because bad weather prevented him from being flown from his prison in Alexandria to Cairo for the trial. That’s a rather long spell of bad weather, and besides it’s only two and a half hours by road from Alexandria to Cairo. One suspects that the military regime did not want Morsi to make his first public appearance since the coup just before the referendum.
The Zogby poll also revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents blame the last military regime, under Hosni Mubarak, for the problems facing Egypt today. All in all, this is hardly a firm foundation on which to complete the counter-revolution and build a new military regime.
The likeliest outcome of the referendum on the new constitution this week (Tuesday and Wednesday) will be a modest majority for the “Yes”, but on a very low turnout. If it is lower than the mere 33 percent who voted in the referendum on the last constitution in 2012, then Sisi may have to reconsider his plan to run for the presidency.