The Global Network for Rights and Development (GNRD), together with MEP Eija-Riitta Korhola (EPP) hosted a roundtable on ‘International Observation of Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum – Challenges Ahead’ at the European Parliament. The participants included MEP Jacek Wlosowicz (EFD), Maged Mosleh (Egyptian Embassy), Ramadan Abu Jazar (GNRD-Brussels) and Sabra Bano (Gender Concerns International). GNRD’s Programme Manager Ala Abu Dakka moderated the discussion, which focused on strengths and weaknesses of the January 2014 constitution, the observation mission for referendum and the challenges Egypt faces in its democratic transition.
The constitutional referendum took place in mid-January 2014. Together with the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections, the referendum is an important step in shaping the political, economic and social future of Egypt. The constitutional amendments were the government’s response to months of turmoil following the overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi last July, and a way to strengthen its legitimacy.
The new constitution has its weaknesses and its implementation will require compromises, but it is a step forward and all participants agreed that it represented significant improvements as compared to its predecessor. It provides new rights and freedoms, guaranteeing to women equality with men, banning child labour and giving the parliament a right to impeach the president.
Egypt is only starting to experiment with democratic elections and Western expectations should reflect this. One vote does not define democracy and imperfect elections do not mean that Egypt will never become democratic. Allowing observers to follow elections is an important step in developing Egypt’s democracy, but in the end, it is the Egyptian people who will determine the legitimacy of their elections.
GNRD observers present in Egypt came across with a number of inconsistencies but errors were assessed to be at acceptable level. Although the referendum was considered to meet international standards, members of the European Parliament criticised the referendum process, citing low turnout, one-sided debate and media coverage and harassment of opponents. On the other hand, they applauded the positive elements of the new constitution and called for the Egyptian parliament to fully implement it. In upcoming presidential elections, Egypt must work on ensuring an opportunity for peaceful democratic debate, access to media for all political groups and better training for electoral officials. The EU should continue to support Egypt and provide technical assistance in the areas where Egypt requires it and more importantly wants. Egypt needs friends and partners, and support in the implementation of a democratic system, not donors.
MEP Jacek Wlosowicz (EFD) compared the Arab Spring to the changes that occurred in Eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War. The expectations for a new order in the Arab world were high three years ago when the Arab Spring movement started. However, they have not taken the form that was expected, and the Syrian civil war, the dire situation in Iraq and continued instability in Egypt demonstrate that transition to democracy is not straightforward.
To fully understand the current situation in Egypt, one should consider the events that have taken place over the past three years. There have been two revolutions, four presidents, six governments and two constitutions. These figures give an idea of the challenges Egypt faces and how difficult it is to make a transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is challenging to make the necessary cultural and societal changes and the road to democracy is neither easy nor short; it was not so in Eastern Europe and it will not be in the Arab countries.
Egypt’s influence in the region is significant and it can lead the transition to democracy, but it requires the support of the EU and other actors for the changes to take place in its own society to prevent further instability. Egypt continues to struggle with continued terrorist attacks and strikes, and its progress towards democracy is threatened by the arrests of political activists and opposition members. Many young Egyptians have given up on the revolution; they support neither the army nor the Islamists. They simply want a break with the past.
Women in Egypt have been involved in the revolution from the beginning. They played a significant role in Tahrir Square protests but in the current political sphere their influence is often lacking. For Egypt to have a stable democracy, the participation of women is essential. Women’s voice was loud in the revolution and must continue to be so throughout the transformation.
Differing from the EU’s official qualification of President Morsi’s overthrow in June 2013 as a coup, many Egyptians perceive that their country has experienced two revolutions. The first revolution of 2011 got rid off the military dictatorship, while the second one, last June, removed a religious, fascist regime from power. This Egyptian reading of the recent government changes underscore the major differences that exist between established and infant democracies. By comparison, it was advanced that similar protests in Europe would have resulted in the government’s resignation.
In Egypt, the transformation is still a work in-progress and is not yet fully accomplished. It is impossible to implement rules of established democracies in a country in a state of revolution. Democracy should be looked in both qualitative and quantitative terms. If one only looks at the process, it is easy to miss the reality on the ground. In Egypt’s case, the emphasis placed on President Morsi being democratically elected, easily leads to ignoring the fact that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood only used the democratic process as a means to gain political control, moving away from it straight after the elections.