Referendums by themselves are not necessarily a sign of democracy at work. In fact, the one taking place in Egypt today is precisely the opposite because it is aimed at creating an autocracy with the country’s notorious army leadership firmly in control.
Not only is the draft constitution anti-democratic in its nature; people trying to campaign against the proposals have been arrested and the opposition effectively banned from the referendum process.
So where are the howls of protest from Washington and the European Union, from London and Paris about a fake referendum that effectively legitimises the army coup d’état that removed the country’s first elected president in July?
Hypocrisy rules supreme in Western capitals when it comes to real democracy, as we are all too aware. So EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton could issue a statement backing the referendum. Unbelievably she claimed that it could lead to “democratic elections” and “accountability for the government and state institutions”.
Yet the constitution contains nothing of the sort. The new constitution exempts the army, police and intelligence services from civilian control and allows them to prosecute in military courts anyone they deem threatening. Workers rights are curtailed at a time when frequent strikes are taking place as living standards fall.
Little wonder that General Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who led the coup against the Islamist government of Mohamed Morsi – who is currently in jail awaiting trial for a litany of “offences” - has hinted that he will take a “Yes” vote as a mandate to become Egypt’s next president.
Egypt remains Washington’s key ally in the region and the Obama administration performed linguistic somersaults to avoid labelling the overthrow of Morsi and the banning of his Muslim Brotherhood party a coup. Now its getting ready to resume large-scale aid once the referendum is out of the way.
Hidden in the massive budget bill heading for Congress is a measure that would exempt Egypt from a law requiring a cut off in aid in the event of a military coup. It would allow $1 billion in annual aid to resume if the administration certifies that Egypt “has held a constitutional referendum and is supporting a democratic transition.” More money is promised once the country implements “economic reforms”.
Yet an authoritarian regime now rules Egypt and the referendum won’t change that one jot. Activists who have tried to campaign for a no vote have been arrested and prosecuted on absurd charges. Public demonstrations are banned, and police have killed 27 people and arrested 703 who tried to protest on the past three Fridays, according to Human Rights Watch.
Four of the most famous secular leaders of the 2011 revolution against the Mubarak regime have been jailed on charges of participating in unauthorised demonstrations. Opposition media have been shut down, and journalists from Al Jazeera imprisoned without charge.
Hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood members have been killed in protests and most of the group’s leaders have been arrested. Last month, the army-backed cabinet designated it as a terror group and said anyone who “promotes it by speech, writing or any other means and all who fund its activities” would be prosecuted.
The three years since the revolution that overthrew Mubarak, and placed Egypt firmly in the centre of the Arab Spring, have seen increasingly desperate attempts by the ruling class to hold on to power. The army, which owns and controls a large part of the economy, is historically an integral part of these capitalist structures and kept Mubarak in power.
When that façade was broken by the 2011 revolution, the Muslim Brotherhood, with its deep roots amongst the downtrodden masses, stepped into the breach. When it began to threaten the military’s privileges, and failed to deliver on promises to improve living standards, it too was removed in order to head off a popular uprising.
The anger expressed in the Arab Spring has not disappeared. But what has been found wanting is a secular vision and organisation to complete the revolutionary process and transform the existing state. So let’s support those in jail in Egypt who have courageously opposed military rule and the millions who will boycott today’s referendum.