Travelogue from Cairo Trip

By Jason Brownlee, Wilson Center Fellow, 2010-2011

Apr 12, 2011

In mid-March I traveled to Cairo, Egypt for a one-week trip during which I witnessed the country's first democratic voting in modern history. After going to and studying in Egypt for over fifteen years, this trip was unlike any of my previous visits, coming on the heels of the January 25th Revolution that deposed President Hosni Mubarak and opened the potential for broader regime change.

Mubarak's ouster came from a combination of long-simmering dissent and recent activism. Over the past three years, as labor protests flashed in the background, Egyptian leaders treated citizens with contempt, minimizing police brutality and infantilizing their political opponents. In 2010, cyber-activists, newly empowered under Mohamed ElBaradei's aegis as a quasi-presidential contender, primed the public to challenge regime corruption. Tunisians bolstered the campaign immeasurably on January 14, 2011; by ejecting their strongman-president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, they shattered the deterrent capacity of Egypt's internal police. Internet organizers in Egypt then served as the gilded linchpin for a diverse national movement which drove Mubarak out and launched the Middle East's largest democratic experiment. By embracing the military council that took over, demonstrators showed they preferred a provisional junta to a permanent kleptocracy. What follows will depend on whether and how the revolutionaries bridge the disparate dreams and hopes they so powerfully focused against Mubarak.

It was against this epochal backdrop that I observed the March 19 referendum in which the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (the SCAF) asked Egyptians to ratify a set of nine changes to the country's 1971 Constitution, most of which focused on the president's qualifications and maximum term in office. The referendum drew historic levels of peaceful turnout and set a new standard for transparency and civility at the polling stations. I visited three polling centers around Cairo and Giza, covering different socioeconomic profiles. They were uniformly well organized and calm despite lines that sometimes kept voters waiting two hours or more before casting their ballots. National turnout was 41%, or 18 million, with 77.7% voting "yes" on the limited amendment of presidential powers in the 1971 constitution. Turnout could have been even higher had there been more polling stations open. As a result, voting was extended by two hours, in part to compensate for the country's capacity problem.

The stage is now set for parliamentary and presidential elections in September and December, respectively. The "no" camp – those against proposed amendments to the constitution and comprising liberals, leftists, and many Copts – initially took its defeat in stride. After the results came in, Pope Shenouda, spiritual leader of Egypt's substantial Christian community, called the General Guide of the Muslim Brothers in a gesture of magnanimity and fellowship. The Muslim Brothers, the most prominent and active "yes" group, are expected to perform well in parliamentary elections and wield great sway in the presidential race, even without fielding their own candidate. Liberals I spoke with expressed more concern about Salafists than about the Muslim Brothers. The Salafists, who subscribe to a traditionalist derivative of Saudi Wahhabism, also supported the "yes" position. In a sermon that was posted on YouTube, one of the most famous Salafist preachers in Egypt, Mohammed Yaqoub, gloated that his followers had "conquered" the ballot box in that an affirmative vote was a vote of "yes" for Islam, and that Egyptians who did not like the country's new direction could immigrate to Canada and America.

Aside from the electoral strength of conservative Islamic movements, the biggest open question is whether the SCAF plans to field a presidential candidate at the end of this year or throw its weight behind a civilian figure like Amr Moussa. To date, the military leaders have zigzagged between giving space to the January 25th movement and unilaterally censuring its supporters. Days after the referendum, the SCAF's civilian government passed a law banning economically disruptive demonstrations. The Council has also sent to military trial an internet activist who covered widely documented accusations of torture by the military police. Most significant of all, the SCAF recently issued a wide-reaching "constitutional declaration" that established an interim political framework without any public input. While the declaration encompassed the March 19 constitutional changes, it effectively abrogated the substance of the referendum and reinforced the SCAF's insulation from Egyptian society.

Experts & Staff