Demonstrators have been in Tahrir Square all day to rally voters for tomorrow’s referendum to ratify six amended articles of the country’s constitution. The content of the particular amendments—including term limits on the presidency and qualifications for the executive office—is less significant than the political impact of the vote. This first of three scheduled elections (parliamentary and presidential to follow) to take place between now and September may be the most important of all. A "yes" vote ratifying the articles may mean that Egypt’s revolution is over—or that it was a Muslim Brotherhood-driven campaign from the outset.
Both the Islamists—the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups like the relatively moderate Wasat party and a newly formed party of younger Islamist activists named Nahda (or renaissance)—and the military are pushing for the yes vote. Some analysts have speculated that the Islamists are fearful that unless these amendments are passed, Article 2 of the constitution, which designates Islamic Sharia as the primary source of legislation, might come under scrutiny. It’s true that liberals, secularists and Christians all dislike Article 2, but as other analysts have noted, a referendum on Article 2 would lead to a conflict no one looks forward to, perhaps even civil war.
“This is not about specific articles,” says Amr Bargisi, a senior partner in the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth. “It is about the opposing political forces pushing for the two options.” Bargisi explains that while the Brotherhood and the military want the yes vote, everyone else from the protests movement is on the other side, pushing for no. “This is the true essence of polarization,” Bargisi continues. “It’s about how much of a role you want for traditional forces. The no voters are seeking a totally new Egypt, and want a protracted transitional period. If on the other hand we follow traditional procedures, we go back to where we were.”
A yes vote serves the Muslim Brotherhood, says Bargisi, “because it is the only experienced political faction outside the former president’s National Democratic Party. The Brotherhood is better at negotiating, and cutting deals than the other players.”
The rest of the revolution’s players are barely organized. The liberals in particular are in disarray. “They’ve been excluded for decades and were manipulated by the regime,” Hala Mustafa, editor of the political journal Democracy, tells me. “They’re fragmented, and then there’s personal competition,” she explains. For instance, head of the Ghad party Ayman Nour and leader of the Democratic Front Osama Harb, have ignored chances to pool their resources and are instead vying for supporters. “The liberals want more time to organize,” Mustafa says.
A no vote means that they’ll get that chance since the constitution will be referred to a different procedure—one that no one seems to understand since it is still undecided and will finally fall to the military to make the call—and will push back parliamentary elections. A yes vote will be followed by the parliamentary elections due to take place in September. The Muslim Brotherhood will come to the fore, winning perhaps the entire 30 percent of seats they promised to limit their bid to and, perhaps more importantly, the favor of a military that since it is extremely uncomfortable about ruling the country directly is very eager to get back to business as usual.
A yes vote means that Egyptians also want to return to business as usual, and so the vote tomorrow is a referendum on the revolution. “Yes means there will be little legitimacy for the demonstrations any more,” says Bargisi. “The notion that people demonstrating were out there for democracy and representing all Egyptians will fail. The revolutionaries will be seen to be a minority, and that from the beginning there weren’t all that many people who supported their demands.”
Conversely, since the Islamists are campaigning for yes, an overwhelming response that way could indicate that it is the Muslim Brotherhood aspect of the revolution that Egyptians support. In any case, a yes vote will constitute a reactionary gesture, one signaling a moment that predates the Mubarak regime, which gave no quarter to the Muslim Brotherhood. “It’s a scenario close to the 1952 Free Officers Revolution,” says Bargisi. “You had the military and the Muslim Brotherhood, which the military disposed of easily, and you wound up with Nasser.”
Turnout is expected to be high for a vote that may decide whether Egypt follows the path of democracy laid out by its young revolutionaries in Tahrir Square, or instead slouches toward a 21st-century pan-Arabist, pan-Islamist populism.