Tahrir Crowds

Tahrir Crowds
Midan Tahrir, 1 Feb 2011

Friday, March 25, 2011

No Putting this Genie Back in the Bottle!

Coming home from an evening out on Friday, as we sat in our seats on the Metro [subway] train, we were handed a small leaflet on why to vote, "No," in last Saturday's referendum. The leaflet bore the logo of the Coalition of Revolutionary Youth. A discussion quickly began between an older gentleman and his wife, questioning the young man on why he thought the proposed constitutional amendments should be voted down. The two parties continued a lively debate, joined by several listeners and another questioning participant.

Even on state-run TV stations, lively political talk shows have sprung up, featuring speakers representing many different ideas. These are essential baby steps for creating democracy.

This is very heady stuff for Egypt-- a country where before 25 January 2011, political discussions were normally held in private, behind closed doors. In public, few volunteered their points of view about any issues, save those concerning the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Twenty years ago, one never heard a negative public word about Egypt's rulers from the average citizen. More recently, grumblings began about the Mubarak regime-- not with a lot of detail, but communicating the weariness of the citizenry with the regimes' rule. Even such murmurings were remarkable.

Today, freedom of speech is blossoming overnight, debates occurring since the 25 January Revolution began. Now it is one of the purposes served by Tahrir Square: Egyptian tourists are coming to take pictures of their kids in the Square, buy a souveneir or two, and clumping into discussion groups on the sidewalk.

While much of the desired change remains to be implemented, this newly-found freedom of political speech, open, public, rigorous debate, is very heady stuff. Whatever else the revolution achieves or fails to achieve, this is a very significant change. No one can put this genie back in the bottle. Having found their voice, Egyptians are very much enjoying its use.

Monday the results of the Referendum were announced, with about 77% of the vote favoring the new amendments to the constitution. What is especially remarkable was the voter turnout: million voters. For one friend, it took two hours to vote. The polling place was due to close. Prospective voters chanted, "My right, my right!" demanding their right to vote. Previous elections have generated more apathy and considerably interest. Not this one-- now Egyptian citizens insist on expressing their voice through their vote.

"Naem ow le?"  Yes or No? What did these votes on the constitutional amendments mean?

A "Yes" Vote Means:

For some this expressed the longing for a return to stability. Many are either unemployed or haven't been paid since the revolution, and they want a return to normalcy in daily life.

For some, the constitutional amendments were acceptable. The amendments created term limits for the president, for a maximum of two four-year terms. The amendments began to open the door for more fair elections, with the appointment of an Election Commission to oversee the elections, as well as beginning to open the door for the participation of political parties other than the National Democratic Party. (Reform of other laws are still needed, such as whether a religious party can participate).

For some, they want the next elections to take place in six months, either because:
*they don't want the Supreme Military Council to rule any longer than absolutely necessary; or
*their preferred party is already organized and will fair well in six months (as is the case with the NDP, though it may dissolve and reconstitute itself, as well as with the Muslim Brotherhood, which hopes the ban on it being a political party will be abolished).

For some, it is seen as a first step in constitutional reform, not as its end--and they feel is is a reasonable first step.

For some, it was a vote for the Muslim Brotherhood, which has its own elaborate organization on the ground, and has provided charitable work, medical clinics and social services for many years, thereby building positive regard for its organization.

Revolutionaries came out on both sides, though most favored a "No," vote.

A "No" Vote Means:

Some argue than no new political parties will be able to run viable candidates in six months, thereby guaranteeing the old NDP machine will still take at least 40% of seats in the parliament, with the Muslim Brotherhood probably improving its ratio of seats from the current 20% to 30% or better. In other words, the NDP may be able to survive and consolidate its power and reconstitute its rule. It is still the most organized party on the ground. Meanwhile the Brotherhood improves its position. (No surprise that they supported a "yes" vote, though arguably opportunistic).

Some prefer elections be delayed one or two years, in order to educate the public on their rights, on the issues, and allow time for new coalitions to build and organize party infrastructures. This is a common view from the revolutionaries. They know that currently those who are liberal or progressive or who prefer a secular government participate in many groups. At least 25 separate groups worked together for the Revolution. They achieved consensus on the initial goals of Revolution: an end to Mubarak's regime, an end to the Central Security State, an end to military rule, an end to corruption, for free and fair democratic elections (including the reform of existing election law), for freedom of speech and for freedom of association.

Next comes the tough work, the political engagement to implement this goals in real terms, write them into law, and create the mechanisms for these changes. These are incredibly sweeping changes, and their implementation, very complicated. There is no current consensus on how the achieve these goals, on which steps are needed on what order, and it's not easy to know where to start.

The public debate, towards generating some national consensus on how to proceed on these many important changes, is clearly needed. And building consensus on any one of these issues can take a lot of time.

I hope the demonstrators keep the pressure on the army, so that the changes move forward.

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