- A large majority of Egyptians did not bother to vote in today's referendum on constitutional amendments, which most see as the end of a two-year attempt to democratise the country. With an assured victory for President Hosni Mubarak's undemocratic amendments, not even an estimated ten percent of the electorate cast their vote.
Most of Egypt's polling stations today were virtually left deserted and there were few signs of the "millions of voters" that the government agency reported were "heading to ballot boxes." One hour before the polls were to close, the 300 election observers from the independent Committee for Democracy Support had observed an overall turnout was at no more than 3 percent.
The Cairo government however feels a strong need to have a legitimate result to show to, still claiming voter turnout had been at acceptable levels. Information Minister Anas el-Feki claimed preliminary data indicated an overall turnout of between 23 and 27 percent. In some provinces, turnout had even reached 60 percent, he claimed.
While technically the voter turnout is not of importance, it is still a matter of prestige. A simple majority of the "yes" vote is enough to approve the controversial constitutional amendments, regardless of voter turnout. Nevertheless, the united opposition and civil rights groups had called for a boycott of the poll, giving them a moral victory if turnout is as extraordinary low as survey indicate.
The main reason for absenteeism is however not the unpopular content of the amendments - most Egyptians are poorly informed about their meaning - but a growing tradition of abstaining from voting in the country. In Egyptian history, a vote has never given a real opportunity to change anything. Often, only the government's option has been left to popular rubberstamping. When several choices are given, intimidation and rigging see to it that the government's view will win. As a result, Egyptian elections typically only motivate 10-20 percent of the electorate.
The extraordinary low voter turnout today nevertheless is a sign that most opposition voices have boycotted the referendum. This follows a rather unique unity among Islamists, the secular opposition and civil society groups, which all strongly oppose the amendments and the way the polls are organised - only six days were given to organise a "vote no" campaign.
The amendments basically remove the constitutional protections of free elections, of a free judiciary and of the human rights of a fair trial. Until now, these rights have lacked in Egypt since the introduction of emergency legislation in 1981, following the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat. The new constitutional amendment disguises this as new sweeping powers to the President to enable him to "fight terrorism".
In practical terms, the new constitution gives the presidency the right to send "terrorists" - which given its wide definition also may include the opposition - to military courts for trial, without right to appeal. Further, elections will no longer be subjected to judicial supervision, meaning that it will become even easier to rig Egyptian polls.
In a step provoking the opposition, but found reasonable by many analysts, political parties and their presidential candidates will now be allowed as long as they are not basing their politics on religion. While the concept may be a sound development in a region where religious extremism is spreading, the prime victim is Egypt's oldest and most powerful and popular opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Egypt's Brotherhood - which is the historic root of most Islamist movements around the world - is already prohibited as a political party. But it has managed to get a 20 percent parliamentary representation through fielding "independent" candidates. Through the amendments, the Brotherhood will be further penalised, and it will not be able to present any candidate in the presidential polls - given a new provision that a presidential candidate needs the support of a party represented in parliament with at least 7 percent of the votes.
If - or rather when - approved, the constitutional reform also means an abrupt end to years of slow democratisation of Egypt. Democratic movements in Egypt had embarked on a "Cairo Spring" a few months after Washington - President Bush's major ally - declared its intention of actively seeking a democratisation of the entire Middle East in early 2005. Protest marches with unheard of appeals against President Mubarak were increasingly seen in Cairo.
President Mubarak showed his willingness to start a slow democratisation process, which is to include the fielding of several candidates to the presidency and a formal system of multi-party elections. Last year's polls, although organised through intimidation and heavily rigged, allowed major gains to the opposition.
The US government was however very disillusioned by the results, as it was by the Hamas victory in Palestine's first free polls. While Washington had heavily sponsored democratic, secular parties to form a new opposition in the Cairo parliament, Egyptians gave their votes to the Muslim Brotherhood - which may well have won the elections had it not been for intimidation, manipulation and rigging.
During the last half year, with the lessened interest in democratisation from Washington, President Mubarak thus has been able to start reversing the democratisation trends. Hundreds of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition have been jailed, as have civil society activists. With the new constitutional amendments, the Cairo Spring rapidly is turning directly into autumn.
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