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February 2, 2014 Special Dispatch No. 5631

Reactions To Results Of Egyptian Constitutional Referendum: Support For Defense Minister Al-Sisi's Presidential Run, Complaints Of Fraud

February 2, 2014
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 5631

The new Egyptian constitution[1] was approved by referendum on January 14-15, 2014, with 98.1% support. Of the 53.5 million eligible voters, 38.6%, some 20.6 million people, turned out; of them, 20 million voted yes.


Results of the referendum (Source: Al-Ahram, Egypt, January 19, 2014)

The majority of reactions to the referendum results in the Egyptian press close to the new regime were highly favorable, with most writers viewing them as a reflection of the mass support for the current regime's anti-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) measures and for the presidential candidacy of Defense Minister 'Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi. Indeed, only a few days after the announcement of the referendum results, practical steps were taken to prepare the ground for an Al-Sisi presidency. On January 26, 2014, President 'Adly Mansour announced his decision to change the road map laid out by Al-Sisi following the July 2013 ouster of president Muhammad Mursi, and to hold the presidential election prior to the parliamentary elections. The next day, Mansour promoted Al-Sisi to the rank of Field Marshall, the highest rank in the Egyptian military, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) announced its approval of Al-Sisi's candidacy.[1] At the same time, the London daily Al-Hayat reported that Al-Sisi had resigned as commander of the military and defense minister, in preparation for officially declaring his candidacy.[2]

Criticism of how the referendum was carried out, and of its results, was heard from only a handful of writers in newspapers associated with the current regime. A few claimed that the results were artificial and that they were proof of a regression in democratic values and of a return to the mentality of the tyrannical regimes that had ruled Egypt up to the January 25, 2011 revolution. Others claimed that the two-thirds of eligible Egyptian voters that had not turned out was actually opposed to an Al-Sisi presidential run.

Media outlets associated with the MB congratulated all those who had boycotted the referendum and claimed that the voting tallies were fraudulent and that the turnout was much lower than reported.[3]

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in response to the publication of the results that approving a constitution was not sufficient to establish democracy, and that this approval must be accompanied by measures ensuring human rights and freedoms as well as by efforts at national reconciliation. His criticism enraged the official Egyptian media, and was perceived an unacceptable interference in Egypt's affairs. However, a few actually saw Kerry's statement as a show of support for the new constitution.

This report will review Egyptian media reactions to the results of the constitutional referendum.

1. The Majority Opinion In Egyptian Media: The Results Are A Green Light For An Al-Sisi Presidential Run

As noted, the overwhelming view in the Egyptian press close to the regime, especially Al-Ahram, was that the approval of the constitution was a popular vote of confidence for Al-Sisi and support for his throwing his hat into the ring.

Egyptian Journalist: Support For Constitution – A Call For Al-Sisi To Run For President

In an article titled "The People and Al-Sisi Are One," 'Omar 'Abd Al-Sami', who writes for Al-Ahram, claimed that the referendum results were a call for Al-Sisi to run for president: "Undoubtedly, starting from early yesterday morning [when the voting began], the Egyptian masses delivered a double blow to the forces of conspiracy, treason, stagnation, terror, and reactionism embodied by the MB and their followers... The double blow is, first, victory in the constitutional referendum and the start of a forward breakthrough towards the establishment of a modern democratic state, despite all attempts to thwart this move including street killings. The second part of the double blow is the call for Gen. 'Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi, the hero whom fate has brought to Egypt, to run for president of the republic and to comply with the will of the millions who wrapped their hearts around him. [Support for the new constitution] is the condition that Al-Sisi set for his election campaign, along with approval from the military...

"The people aren't in favor of Al-Sisi only because they are led by their emotions and because he is the hero who saved them from the MB's imperialism. It is also because the people trust the military establishment from which this man emerged. The masses also trust the spontaneous words with which he addresses them, with great popular emotion and with compassionate heart that treats them delicately... He persuades the people with his political speeches, which he phrases with incredible attention, and they repeat his words and [declaim] his simple motto, which embodies the Egyptians' ambitions and their yearning for a better future: 'Egypt is the mother of the world, and so it will stay.' Today we complete the move of the referendum, and [later] we will take another step with this man [Al-Sisi] to a place where he and we will work and stand together against the pressure and the schemes – because the people and Al-Sisi are one."[4]

Egyptian Academic: The Egyptians Realized That They Were Voting Not Just For The Constitution, But For Al-Sisi As Well

Similarly, Samir Tanagho, a law lecturer at Alexandria and 'Ain Shams universities, wrote: "In the political history of democratic countries, a referendum over a legal document or constitution is also a referendum on the leader or president [himself]. The most prominent example of this is after the 1968 youth and student revolution in France against Charles de Gaulle's regime, he wanted to cement his popularity and the citizens' satisfaction with him, and so in 1969 he held a referendum on a marginal law relating to municipal authority, [which was actually a referendum] on him." He appealed to the French people, telling them that if they did not approve this law by a margin that he thought big enough, he would resign – and that is what happened. De Gaulle resigned after obtaining the people's approval for the law but not by a large enough margin for him to continue to rule.[5]

"This is what happened in Egypt with the constitutional referendum. Gen. 'Abd Al-Fatah Al-Sisi addressed the citizens and asked them to go out and vote, and all Egyptians understood... that they were not just voting for the constitution, but also for Gen. Al-Sisi. The constitution and Gen. Al-Sisi received massive support totaling 98.1% – not like in France in 1969...

"Everyone knows that General Al-Sisi does not run for president; the presidency runs to him. This is his national destiny, not his political future. The most important number in the results of the 2014 referendum is the number of those who voted yes, which totals some 20 million citizens – approximately double that for the 2012 constitution, which totaled slightly higher than 10 million. The second important number is the percentage of supporters – 98.1%, which everyone knows is a legendary percentage... Mr. [Rashid] Al-Ghannouchi, the head of the Tunisian Al-Nahda Party, ridiculed the fact that the support was above 95%, claiming that this did not align with democracy. In response, we will say that in times of danger, the people close ranks and stand as one.[6]

2. The Minority Opinion In Pro-Regime Media: High Percentage Of Support Means A Return To Mubarak Era

In contrast, a minute number of articles in pro-regime media questioned the results of the referendum and claimed that the high percentage of support was reminiscent of the Mubarak era. Some even claimed that the large number of citizens boycotting the referendum indicated the extent of the opposition to Al-Sisi.

'Al-Ahram' Columnist: Referendum Results Of Over 90% In Favor Are Contrary To Democracy

An unusual article in Al-Ahram, which is known for its support for the current regime and for an Al-Sisi presidential run, by journalist Karem Yahia, was titled "What Does The Silence Of The Ballot Boxes Mean?" In it, he wrote: "It is possible that the title of this article will surprise those who see in the results of the constitutional referendum nothing but national consensus – that is, those who do not comprehend the danger of a return to the situation that existed before January 25, 2011 and the absurdity of going against history... by returning to referendums whose results exceed 90% [in favor and a return] to concepts such as 'a vow of fealty to and empowerment of an inspired commander-leader' and 'historic leadership.' This nomenclature, which typifies a tyrannical regime, is contradictory to the most basic foundations of democratic culture...

"It is not enough that 98% said yes; we must pay attention to the fact that most voters – some 62%, nearly two-thirds, boycotted the vote...

"Why did most Egyptians refuse to participate, despite or even because of the propaganda campaign calling for a yes vote? Did most fear the prevailing atmosphere of fear, intimidation, informing, and silence in public places? Do these boycotters fear [the onset of] an era that will incorporate the worst of the Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak eras? Do they suspect that the Mubarak regime will return, and with it the police state and favoritism for the wealthy? ...

"If, for the sake of argument, we accept the claim that this referendum is a green light for a particular candidate to run for president under the umbrella of the 'yes' of the national consensus, empowerment, and fealty declaration, shouldn't we also mention that nearly two-thirds of voters oppose this candidate, or at the very least are not thrilled with his candidacy and fear for the future of the country with him [at its head]? ...

"Particularly among the youth, who are well-versed in experiments in democracy, there are those who know that referendums such as these are a thing of the past; a proper referendum is held on one or two articles [of a text] and comes only after a social dialogue... [Could the low turnout be] because most Egyptians no longer believe in [the effectiveness] of the apparatus of the referendum, after the series of referendums over the past six decades whose results were always 'yes' and only 'yes' [?]... There may be other reasons for the silence [i.e. the low turnout], but without a doubt it cannot be claimed that one of the reasons is that all those boycotting the referendum are the MB's members or supporters..."[7]

3. MB, Independent Media: Referendum Results Are Fraudulent; Referendum Was Held In An Atmosphere Of Terror And Oppression

Both the independent media and the MB took a harsher view of the referendum results, claiming that they were fraudulent and that the low turnout indicated a lack of consensus, and criticizing the tactics of oppression and intimidation used against opponents of the constitution and against those who boycotted the referendum.

MB: Low Support For The Constitution Led To Falsified Results, Earlier Presidential Election

Reacting to the referendum results, an MB communique stated: "This referendum, which is null and void, was fraudulent, as we and as honest observers expected. It is inconceivable that those with contempt for the popular will, which was clearly revealed five times in previous elections and referendums... [those] who carried out all transgressions that are punishable by hell, would hold an honest referendum – because the results [of such a referendum] would be opposition to the bloody military coup and support for the legitimate civil regime that respects the people and its will, its sovereignty, and its honor. Therefore, the results of the referendum were falsified, in order to give the [leaders of the coup] a fig leaf to cover their illegitimacy. But these results will never grant them any measure of legitimacy.

"[The leaders of the coup] claimed that 38.6% of voters turned out for this referendum, while everyone confirmed that the youth – representing 60% of the voters – boycotted it, in addition to the massive majority of Islamists and other political forces. Therefore, how can these results be achieved other than by fraud?..."[8]

In a statement in response to President 'Adly Mansour's announcement that the presidential election would be moved up, the MB stated: "[Mansour] has no right to make this decision, because his role and decisions are all null and void. We [already] have a legitimate elected president [i.e. Mursi], even if he has been abducted by the coup gang. The will of the people was expressed in its democratic, free, and fair vote in four election [campaigns] and other referendums[9] that cannot be abrogated by tank or rifle. The truth stands above force. This [popular] will – which has been revealed daily for the past seven months in the squares and the streets of this entire country – adheres to legitimacy and opposes the military coup and all that emerged from it. The motive for this decision [to move up the presidential election] and the haste in making it stem from the defense minister's [i.e. Al-Sisi's] obsession with the presidency, as well as from his failure to recruit [support], as was shown by the referendum on the constitution of blood and destruction, which forced them to falsify its results as the entire world watched..."[10]

Former People's Assembly Member 'Amr Hamzawy: The Security State Has Returned; We Have Strayed From The Path Of Democracy

'Amr Hamzawy, a former member of the People's Assembly who has in recent months become a critic of the military rule in the country, also criticized the conduct of the referendum on the constitution. It should be noted that Hamzawy is facing criminal charges for harming the judicial system, alongside ousted president Muhammad Mursi and some of his men, after he posted on Twitter that the regime uses the judicial system as one means to deny free expression and silence its opponents.[11] Hamzawy wrote in his daily column in Al-Shurouq: "When the voter turnout for the 2012 constitution was about 33% I said and wrote that such a low turnout did not give the constitution the degree of popular consensus necessary for society to considered it satisfactory. [I also said] that turnout of under a third of voters strips the constitution of its consensual quality...

"When the 2012 constitution was approved by referendum, I wrote that, just because most participants had agreed on the constitution, this did not change the fact that this constitutional text was bad [because it] did not ensure our rights and freedoms, did not enable the state, society, or the citizen to build a clear democracy, positioned the military establishment as a state above the state, and opened Egypt's doors to religious fascism.."I was not the only one who thought this... The same claim was made by many politicians, writers, and media figures who wave the banners of the civil state, liberalism and the democratic left – those who later took part in drafting the 2013 constitution and supported it [even though it too] reduces our rights and freedoms, does not establish democracy... and places the military establishment as a state above the state..."[12]

In another column, Hamzawy wrote: "Do the elites who have been running things in Egypt since July 3, 2013 think that with the approval of several policy [measures] as well as economic and social steps to improve the living conditions of the poor they can distract public attention from the violations of human rights and freedoms, from the approval of oppressive constitutional texts and laws, from the persecution of oppositionists, and from other actions of the newly [resurrected] security state? Do the military establishment, the security apparatuses, and the government and its member parties think that the media and political praise for the constitutional document approved with less than 40% of Egyptians voting, and after weeks of general mobilization to promote a 'yes' vote under the shadow of direct oppression of the opposition to the 2013 constitutional document, would long prevent public opinion from discovering that we are suffering in a situation of stark political and social polarization; that there is no democratic basis to the constitutional document; and that influential popular sectors have once again avoided [voting] at the polls, after we have strayed from the transition to actual democracy? ...

"The motives behind the defamation of those who oppose the steps that followed July 3, 2013, the accusations of treachery against them, and their punishment, are no longer hidden from many Egyptians, including those sympathetic to the current regime, those who support the 2013 constitutional document, and those who defend the defense minister's presidential bid..."[13]

Columnist: The Systematic Oppression Accompanying The Referendum – A Sign Of Things To Come During The Presidential Elections

Similar claims regarding an atmosphere of oppression and terror accompanying the referendum were made by Reem Sa'd, a columnist for the independent daily Al-Shurouq, who wrote: "The general boycott by the voices opposing the constitution has wrecked the referendum's credibility, and its fairness can no longer be discussed seriously. I do not mean fairness in the narrow sense of voting procedures, ballot distribution, and tallying of the results, but rather the more general steps and atmosphere prior to the vote itself. With the influx of funds from unknown sources to sustain the propaganda [calling] for a 'yes' vote, and with the mobilization of state and independent media to this same purpose, matters [degenerated]to the point that people calling for [voting] against [the constitution] were arrested and anyone even entertaining this notion was intimidated and even branded a traitor. This also applied to anyone calling for a boycott, some of whom were arrested for 'calling to boycott the referendum' even though boycotting is a personal choice and a legitimate political option..."[14]

"I know that many [Egyptians] danced with joy [at the results of the] referendum, and that's all well and good – but fairness and freedom are not measured by how many are dancing near the polling places. Unfortunately, we are facing bad precedents and a return of traditions and atmospheres that must not be restored. The way in which the referendum was handled is not a closed book; it will serve as a model for the next presidential, parliamentary, and local government elections...

"If opponents of the constitution... are abused, arrested, and falsely accused, we can imagine, for example, what might happen to opponents of Gen. Al-Sisi if he decides to run for president. In addition to systematic oppression, the referendum was also the worst possible rehearsal for what might happen in the coming elections, and does not herald even a minimum of equal opportunity for [presidential] candidates..."[15]

4. Criticism Of The U.S. Response To Referendum Results

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said in response to the referendum results that "it's not one vote that determines a democracy, it's all the steps that follow." He stressed that despite the referendum's approval, what would follow – that is, the parliamentary and presidential elections – is what will shape the social, economic, and political framework for the coming generations. Calling on the Egyptian government "to fully implement those rights and freedoms that are guaranteed in the new constitution for the benefit of the Egyptian people," he also said it should "take steps towards reconciliation" with the MB.[16]

According to Kerry, the brave Egyptian people who stood in Al-Tahrir Square continues to search for the promises of the revolution, and knows that the transition to an inclusive and tolerant democracy with a civil leadership will require Egypt's political leaders to make hard compromises and search for widespread consent on many important matters. Kerry said that the U.S. has repeatedly expressed concern about the restrictions on freedom of protest and expression in Egypt, including leading up to the referendum. He called on the transitional government to take these matters to heart leading up to the presidential and parliamentary elections, and also called on all sides to condemn and avoid violence.[17]

'Al-Ahram': Kerry, This Is None Of Your Business!

An Al-Ahram editorial titled "Mr. Kerry, Stop Right There!" read: "It is amazing that the U.S. administration, from President Barack Obama to Secretary of State John Kerry, always chooses the worst timing and the worst response. When the January 25 revolution broke out, Obama and his administration miscalculated, and thus disappointed the Egyptian people, while [Egypt's] military establishment chose, from the very first, to stand by the legitimate hopes of the Egyptian people. [Later,] instead of learning [from its previous experience, the Obama administration] once again [erred by] leaning towards the ousted Muhammad Mursi and his movement, while the Egyptian military [once again] emphatically supported the people. Although the U.S.'s reputation was greatly harmed [as a result of its mistakes], the Egyptian constitution's approval by a wide margin offered Kerry an opportunity [to correct previous mistakes] – but he missed it. It seems that Kerry and his president do a poor job of reading reality, fail to learn lessons from the past, and cannot resist the temptation to give others lessons in democracy!

"Here comes Mr. John Kerry to call on the interim Egyptian government to fully implement the rights and freedoms guaranteed the Egyptian people by the new constitution, and to move towards reconciliation [with the MB]. One might ask who drew up this constitution that includes these wonderful rights and freedoms?! Was it not the Egyptian elite and representatives of the people? If so, why this baseless lecture and this call to grant rights and freedoms? With regards to reconciliation, the only civilized response is: This is none of your business! ...

"The most surprising thing is that Mr. Kerry says that democracy is more than one referendum or election. This is late wisdom, considering that Kerry and his administration had during the MB era already exhausted us with their [emphasis on] the need to respect the legitimacy of ballots – but there is nothing new about an American double standard. Our only advice to Kerry is: Stop interfering in Egyptian affairs now! And now means now, not tomorrow."[18]

Columnist: Egyptian Criticism Of Kerry Statement – Overly Sensitive

On the other hand, Al-Ahram columnist Wahid 'Abd Al-Magid wrote, the day after the editorial was published: "We must stop being overly sensitive to every word we do not like that is uttered by an official in this or another country. Oversensitivity is a sign of weakness, not strength. It indicates a lack of self-confidence and an inability to conduct dialogue and to persuade others. Thus, I see nothing outrageous about the statements made two days ago by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry – although I do dispute some of them.

"First, I looked at the positive part of his statement, on the importance of implementing the rights and freedoms ensured by the new constitution. This means that he read it and saw things that need to be implemented on the ground. This is something to which the Egyptians aspire even more than [Kerry] does.

"As for his comments on some of the referendum's procedures, and his insistence that the political process be inclusive and marginalize no one – this should be a topic for discussion with him and his colleagues, with an open mind and in the strong belief that our position is flawless, but also with willingness to fix some of what needs fixing, purely based on national interest – not just to please someone else, whether within [Egypt] or outside it...

"We mustn't forget that we are talking about a statement by Kerry, who is currently Egypt's best friend in the U.S. administration; he is the one who once spoke of the MB's theft of the January 25 revolution."[19]

Endnotes:

[1] On the constitution, see MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis No. 1049, Egypt's Draft Constitution 2014: Focus On De-Islamization, Expansion Of Military Power January 10, 2014.

[1] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 27-28, 2014.

[2] Al-Hayat (London), January 28, 2014.

[3] Ikhwanonline.com, January 19-20, 2014.

[4] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 15, 2014.

[5] Actually a 52.4% majority rejected de Gaulle's proposal.

[6] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 22, 2014.

[7] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 20, 2014.

[8] Ikhwanonline.com, January 19, 2014. See also MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Report No. 1061, "Egyptians Deeply Divided Over Law Restricting Public Protests," January 28, 2014.

[9] Meaning the referendum on the constitutional amendments in March 2011, the parliamentary elections, the presidential elections, and the referendum on the 2012 constitution.

[10] Ikhwanonline.com, January 26, 2014.

[11] Al-Watan (Egypt), January 19, 2014; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), January 20, 2014.

[12] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 19, 2014.

[13] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 20, 2014.

[14] Human Rights Watch reported the arrest of seven activists from the Strong Egypt Party, headed by former presidential candidate 'Abd Al-Mun'im Abu Al-Futuh, on charges of hanging posters calling to vote against the constitution. Hrw.org, January 12, 2014.

[15] Al-Shurouq (Egypt), January 19, 2014.

[16] State.gov, January 18, 2014.

[17] State.gov, January 18, 2014.

[18] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 20, 2014.

[19] Al-Ahram (Egypt), January 21, 2014. Referring to Kerry's statement that the January 25 revolution was "stolen by the one single-most organized entity in the state, which was the [Muslim] Brotherhood." Nytimes.com, November 20, 2013.

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