Thursday, 10 March 2011

Egypt Constitution Referendum: Define "Yes" and "No" please!

I've been observing a Google group debate about the Constitution Referendum for the past week or so. The arguments for voting "Yes" or "No" are both pretty strong, but the "No" camp seems to be stronger. I still cannot make up my own mind. Not for lack of analysis (been doing a lot of that through television, newspapers, social media, seminars and debates.

But because I simply don't know, in the practical world, what either result will mean for the Armed Forces.

I received this email today from Sina Birkholz, an expat living in Egypt, who makes some really valid and insightful points about the referendum, and what voters need to be considering. Please read and share:

Dear All,

I have so far not been contributing any posts to this list for the simple reason that I am one of those "foreigners" which happen to live in Egypt. But I have been closely following your discussions on constitutional change and the referendum coming up soon. Regarding the recent discussion between you as to what a NO in the referendum actually means and whether it is preferable over abstaining, I would like to share some hopefully useful thoughts with you. As for my own political background and experience: I studied political science, worked and volunteered for various NGOs and civil society organisations, grew up in Germany and thus was confronted with elections and referendum-type polls (slightly different rules and terms apply in German law) regularly.

Referendums are a problematic issue and their use for democratic systems is heavily contested. (To give an example: Being a direct democracy Switzerland makes ample use of them, while the German constitution does not allow for referendums in most cases. The German fear of referendums goes back to its Nazi past and results in a tendency to rather leave major political decisions to a political system characterised by checks and balances and lengthy complicated processes of negotiation and reflections rather to a one-time public vote.)

One of the reasons why referendums are considered problematic is: They have to break down very complicated political issues to simple closed questions. The answer is yes or no - nothing else. And this is exactly the dilemma many of you are facing now: you would like to say "No, I do not support the changes because I want a fully new constitution." or "No, I do not think these changes go far enough, more articles need to be amended before we can hold elections." But all you can say on the 19th of March is NO. And this No could then be interpreted as all of the above, but also as "NO, I think the old constitution is fine as it is, stop all this amendment hassle and let's have Adel Emam for president." ;)

What a majority "NO" in the referendum means is up to interpretation. To interpretation of the media, the public, and eventually those in power. Yet, what a NO does ensure is: the rulers (in our case the military council/Sharaf's cabinet) can proceed simply by bringing to force the 9 amendments and then move on. Yet, what exactly they then make of this, how they move forwards then, which alternative path they choose (no constitution, more amendments, sticking to an unchanged 1971 constitution) is up to them.

In a democratic system the trick is: the government is eager tor interpret the outcome of a referendum in the most appropriate way, simply because the government's reelection is dependent on people's satisfaction. So as an example: If Egypt had a democratically elected government now, which is accountable to the people and dependent on reelection in the upcoming June/September elections, they would try their best to interpret a majority "NO" on 19thMarch in the right way. Thus you could be pretty sure, that they would simply not dare to interpret the "NO" as ""NO, I think the old constitution is fine as it is, stop all this amendment hassle". The events and media coverage of the days since Jan 25 has made clear that there is no majority for sticking to an unchanged constitution.

Of course this is democratic theory, the reality is more complicated and problematic, and of course Egypt is not in the situation to have a democratic accountable government, YET. Nonetheless, I personally would be hopeful, that also the army council and Sharaf's government and the council responsible for reforming the constitution would not dare to interpret a "NO" as "NO, I think the old constitution is fine as it is, stop all this amendment hassle".

In general the following factors are decisive for the interpretation of a held referendum (and thus also for making up your mind about your personal and collective voting strategy):

- Voter turnout
(How many people showed up? Is this representative of the ppl allowed to vote? If not, because the number is to little or only voters for one side showed up - what is the reason? Rigged election/referendum? Or are ppl abstaining on purpose to express their protest?)

- Legally binding character of the referendum's outcome
(If ppl vote for NO, is the government/military council obliged to refrain from changing the constitution in the rejected way? If the vote is YES, are they legally obliged to follow through with the changes? The question whether a referendum's outcome is legally binding to the rulers/legislative is very important! It depends on a country's exact laws/constitution, and might often be conditional on a certain minimum of voter turnout! I do not know about the legal aspects in Egypt unfortunately.)

- Pledges made before the referendum
(What did those in power pledge to do if the outcome is YES or NO? Often governments tell people beforehand how they will deal with/interpret the various outcomes. An example could be "If the majority of people does reject my reform of the social insurance system, I will resign as a minister." or "If people do not vote in favour of the constitutional changes with a majority of at least 65%, we need to ask the reform committee to propose a more comprehensive set of amendments which has to satisfy a larger part of our people. This new draft will be put to another referendum in 4 months time." Statements like these are not as reliable as legally binding mechanisms, yet, if done in public they often enfold considerable binding power.)

- Politician's and activist's statements
(It makes sense not to look for pledges of the government/those in power only, but also to register how oppositional forces view the issue. If large parties/oppositional coalitions of civil society organisations promise to take a "NO" as a signal to fight for more comprehensive changes or a new constitution, there is a realistic chance that the outcome of a NO might be more substantial changes. Yet, if there is no one available and ready and strong enough to take up the cause afterwards, there's the danger that your NO might not have the effect you want it to have.)

- Media coverage
(How do the media judge public opinion and political developments? The media is by no way unbiased. Even if they might not follow their own agenda, they are for sure following their own laws. There is my opinion no point lamenting about this. As a consequence though it simply makes sense to constantly be critical and to consider them as one of the players in political games. Meaning: if the media at large say, a NO should be interpreted as such and such, there is a high likeliness that the media interpretation will be bought in by political actors. Also consider: often politicians/rulers are as much at a loss for how to understand what "the people really want" as we are, so just as we they need to rely on media and a lot of guessing for the interpretation of a referendum's outcome.)

- Public Opinion Polls
In many countries there are specific companies and institutes doing nothing else than oracle-ing about what people want and mean by a "NO" or "YES". One needs to be very careful with taking these public opinion polls at face value, yet, they always offer a nice incentive and pivotal point for debates!

And this probably is the most important point: the debates (in public, media, Saqia, the akhwas in bustan, the office of Sharaf, and of course on Mona Shazly's couch (does she actually have a couch or armchairs?)) which are surrounding the political process of the referendum in my opinion are what matters most. And above that it is public scrutiny and attention that afterwards ensures that a referendum is interpreted in a way that serves the original purpose.

As for the NO/YES/Abstaining issue there obviously is no simply answer, and it is probably not advisable to simply follow AlBaradei in his decision, you need to make up your mind for yourself, it's your own responsibility to look at all the aspects and then judge and chose. Imho Egyptians can only ensure that they hold their leaders accountable if they stop following and start to think through all these issues critically - just as you guys do here on the list.

Good luck. And please excuse if my lengthy explanations bored some of you, if it was useful only for one or two of you, I'm satisfied.


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