Egypt's Polarized Politics

The constitutional referendum won't bring compromise.

On Saturday Egyptians began the process of voting on a draft constitution. The referendum—spread over two days, a week apart—is likely to pass, ending Egypt’s tumultuous transitional period.

Although the transition will be over, what comes next will not be stable. Opposing sides of the political scene, Islamists and non-Islamists, are further polarized against each other: each viewing their opponents’ moves as illegitimate.

In such an atmosphere, an election will not end street demonstrations or political violence, and a ruling party pushing through its agenda will not right Egypt’s battered economy.

If Egypt ever had a chance for compromise, that moment passed on November 22, when Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi issued a Constitutional Declaration placing his decisions above judicial review. This was followed by a rush to complete the draft constitution, by an overwhelmingly Islamist assembly, in an all-night session.

Egypt’s political opposition and civil society took to the streets in an effort to delay the referendum vote and to demonstrate their disapproval of the manner by which an elected Islamist majority was steamrolling the concerns of others.

The situation grew worse in the lead up to the referendum. Activists from the Muslim Brotherhood—the dominant political force, whose political party Morsi once led—attacked anti-Morsi protestors outside the presidential palace in a manner reminiscent of the old regime. The major union of Egyptian judges called for a boycott of overseeing the referendum.

Perhaps the one positive outcome of the past three weeks was that the political opposition was forced to work together as it never had before. The National Salvation Front (NSF) is a new alliance of several non-Islamist parties ranging from Leftists, to Liberals, to former elites of the Mubarak regime. If these parties have begun the transition to actual political organizations collaborating with each other, a non-Islamist bloc will have a chance of increasing its share of seats in the next parliament.

Preliminary results from the first day of the referendum show a closer vote than expected. However, a stronger tilt toward approval is likely in the more rural districts of round two: Cairo, the largest district, tipped the balance in the direction of disapproval on Saturday.

Those campaigning for the constitution’s defeat were always disadvantaged. The NSF attacked the process itself, while civil society groups brought attention to what the constitution would mean for women’s rights, religious minorities, freedom of speech and other universal values. Though it did not join the NSF, the party of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh—a former Brotherhood leader, who had been tossed from the group when he independently decided to run for president—argued that the constitution ignores the demands of the revolution.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Nour Party, and other Islamist groups had a much easier argument to make in favor of the referendum. Egypt is a conservative Muslim society, and the new constitution will increase the role of Islamic law in governing. To a struggling population, weary of a neverending political transition and a stalled economy, a vote for the constitution was a vote for stability.

When the referendum passes, however, stability is far from likely. Neither side trusts the other and the constitution will not solve this problem. A true dialogue between the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition is necessary to overcome this lack of trust; but given Morsi's track record, this is unlikely. Meanwhile, violent clashes before and during the referendum exemplify the growing role of vigilantism.

Egypt’s next elections—for a new People’s Assembly—are set to be held just sixty days from the constitution’s approval. A key question is whether the opposition can continue to work together.

In a fall visit to Washington, an Egyptian activist called for the merger of the Constitution, Conference, and Egyptian Current parties—which, at least for the moment, the NSF has accomplished. Where a merger is not possible, such as with Aboul Fotouh’s Strong Egypt Party, the activist hoped for a strategy of cooperation: not running opposing candidates in the same districts.