Next Saturday, we will have the first “free” poll in Egypt in decades…. The referendum on the constitutional amendments. Like most referenda in Egypt, we always assume that a “yes” vote has the higher chances of passing. Up till few days ago, this seemed to be the case – the new constitutional amendments were offering all what the army promised, and all what the people asked for after Mubarak was ousted. However, over few days, the “NO” vote gained significant momentum, first among intellectuals and opinion leaders, and then among a growing constituency.
Nobody knows what the final outcome will be, although the odds of a NO vote are increasing. What does that mean? Three things:
(1) “In Army we trust”
Most Egyptians, regardless of their political affiliations seem to agree on the need for a new constitution that restores freedoms and build strong institutions for a free and democratic Egypt. We have not discussed the details yet, and the devil is in the details; however, there seems to be a consensus on the need for a completely new constitution – the current disagreement is how do we get there.
There are two paths towards this new constitution: one goes through a hastily elected parliament, and the second goes through the Army. In reality, this is the essence of this referendum: a YES vote, implies that people trust an elected parliament to be mandated with writing the new constitution; a NO vote implies that they trust the army to manage the process. It is ironic that the balance is tipping towards the army! The argument is that a new parliament will be dominated with the Muslim Brothers along with the remnants of the NDP, and the army seems much more credible and trustworthy at this critical juncture.
Contrary to what many analysts are saying that a NO vote creates conflict with the army and challenges their transition plan – a NO vote is a vote of confidence in the army to manage the transitional process.
(2) El-Baradei is the most influential person in Egypt today
You can say whatever you want about his lack of charisma (whatever that means!) or how his extended presence abroad has limited his credibility among Egyptians – El-Baradei is the single most influential opinion leader in Egypt today. The reason he achieved this position is simply because of his foresight and strategic thinking. He has proven that he can understand and analyze the situation better than anyone, and to foresee the right moves ahead of anyone. His analysis have proven to be correct again and again, and people are taking notice. His power comes from two sides. First, he has always been consistent in his views – he never changed his values or overall vision. Second, his analysis and arguments are deep and precise – they often get shared or adopted by other public intellectuals and opinion leaders, old and young alike. Through them, his opinions are popularized and communicated to the broader masses through talk shows, news articles, or public lectures. He has compensated for his alleged lack of charisma (defined as being a slick talker), by a more powerful “intellectual charisma”. He can speak through numerous proxies who will deliver his message to their respective constituencies in the proper language. What matters is that he has a clear message that is built on a principled vision – something that many of the other players obviously lack.
If El-Baradei ever wins the presidential elections, it will be because of his strategic thinking and ability to influence opinion leaders and build alliances – not through charisma, smooth talk or popular discourse.
(3) And the losers are….. MB, NDP, and the Orthodox Coptic Church
As of today, everybody seems to be against the constitutional referendum, except for the Muslim Brothers and the NDP (It’s quiet telling to see those two groups on one side, campaigning against all other political powers)! What is more important is what a no vote will mean for them: people will have the confidence that they can defeat the combined power of the MB and NDP in a national referendum! Granted that the parliamentary elections dynamics are very different from a national poll, but still, the equation is clear: MB+NDP<50%. This will give the anxious (rest of the ) country a big sigh of relief. This loss will also affect the MB’s representation in any (selected) constitutional committee.
The Orthodox Coptic Church is another story – their absence from the political process (as an institution, not as individuals) has significantly weakened them. For three decades, the unwritten accord between the Church was that Mubarak protected the Christian Copts, in exchange of the Church’s acquiescence. And the Islamists (MB, Salafists, Islamic Jihad, you name it) were always there as the scarecrow, when needed. During the revolution, the Coptic Orthodox Church has been actively absent from all demonstrations, and it was obvious that it chose to align itself with Mubarak and his regime (other smaller churches like the Evangelical Church or the Catholic Church were supportive of the revolution, and were visible in Tahrir Square throughout the revolution). After the revolution, the demands of the 9-day demonstrations in Maspero were limited in scope to sectarian demands (albeit justified and overdue). Rather than aligning themselves with the national consensus and the broader revolution, with its demands of freedom and rule of law for all Egyptians (which would include, de facto, the right to build churches and enjoy all the freedoms that Mubarak and his regime deprived them from), they positioned themselves as one of the many sectarian groups that were demanding special benefits to their own. Whether this was intended or not (clearly the Atfeeh incidents created the direct motivation for the Maspero demonstrations), it did not position the Coptic Orthodox Church well.
Has it not been for the charismatic and politically savvy Naguib Sawiris, the Christian role would’ve been significantly diminished in the future political process. Throughout the revolution, Sawiris has maintained a nationalist posture that gained broad support among all Egyptians, Muslims and Christians alike. He managed to bring the voice of the Christians to the broader national discourse in a wise and centrist manner. He demonstrated what it means to be an Egyptian who happens to be a Christian, rather than the other way, and by doing so, he has emerged as the potential leader or face for Coptic Christians; someone who can lead them back to the mainstream politics, rather than being marginalized by the Church’s position.
Overall, the events of the past week are showing that the traditional powers from the Mubarak era (the NDP, MB and Orthodox Church) may be slowly losing power, against the revolutionary momentum, which is yet to be organized and institutionalized.
Amin Elmasry. 15 March 2011.