Egyptians on Saturday are going to a landmark vote in their history, not only because it is the first vote after toppling former President Hosni Mubarak, but also because it might be the only fair and clean referendum to be held in Egypt in decades.
Saturday’s referendum on the proposed constitutional amendments marks the 22nd referendum since 1956, when they were first introduced here. Egypt started its negative relationship with referendums, also known as ballot questions, that year, four years after the Free Officers movement ousted the monarchy and declared Egypt a republic.
Before 1952, Egypt’s constitution didn’t allow for referendums, only general elections for parliamentary candidates. But various constitutions following the 1952 military coup required a public referendum to approve a candidate for presidency or take the general opinion on certain issues including constitutional amendments.
According to the 1956 Constitution, the president of Egypt serves a six-year term and is chosen by two steps, the first is to be selected by an absolute majority of parliament and then be put to a public referendum.
Egypt’s first presidential referendum on 23 June 1956, was controversial since it included questions about the adoption of the 1956 Constitution along with the election of Gamal Abdel Nasser as president. Nasser received a reported 99.784 percent of the referendum votes (around 7 million voters) and the results went uncontested, despite the fact that only 65 voters reportedly rejected his candidacy.
Less than two years later, Nasser’s name was also written in the ballot question in February 1958 when Egyptians and Syrians were asked to say vote on proposed unity between the countries. Nasser was put forth on the same ballot in a separate question on electing him president of the proposed political entity known as United Arab Republic.
Nasser improved his position in the 1958 referendum, wining 99.994 percent of the vote. And out of more than 7.4 million voters in the two countries, only 452 rebuffed him in the ballot where only 386 voters were said to have voted against the proposed unity.
In 1965, Nasser’s results of 99.999 percent approval spawned jokes about people who made doubtful exceptional performances.
Egyptians again went to the polls in October 1970 to approve Anwar Sadat, the then 52-year-old vice president, as Nasser’s successor. Sadat got 90.04 percent approval from around 7.1 million voters. Only 711,252 voted “no”. This result constitutes the lowest approval result of any president during nine presidential referendums held in Egypt.
Sadat took the oath of office in October 1970 and after 11 years, his successor Hosni Mubarak, the then 53-year-old vice president, took the oath of office in what would become the third-longest rule of Egypt in two millennia.
Mubarak won 98.46 percent of the vote in 1981, maintaining his reported approval in the three following elections. In 2005, Mubarak asked the People’s Assembly to amend Article 76 of the 1971 Constitution to allow multi-candidate presidential elections.
Electoral fraud and sky-high approval ratings were not the only alarming aspects of the referendums; they also served as a tool to harass the opposition and pass decisions that would dominate the nation.
Sadat often used referendums as a means of control. In September 1971, a referendum of an ambiguous unity between Egypt, Syria and Libya was held and 99.9% of the voters said “yes”. Moreover, Sadat aimed to change the economic strategies of the country by leaving his predecessor’s socialist policies and holding a referendum on market economy plans. The result of the vote, was again overwhelmingly in favor of what was known as the “October Paper.”
More surprisingly, Sadat also called a vote in 1977 that reportedly led 99 percent of voters to agree to a national unity law. The law was later described as the most effective tool in quashing rising political opposition against Sadat.
In May 1978, another referendum was held on proposed laws called the Law of Shame and the Law of Protecting the Internal Front, which were believed to target regime opponents.
The controversial peace treaty with Israel was subject to the April 1979 referendum, garnering 99 percent support. On the same ballot, Egyptians had to decide on the dissolution of the People’s Assembly, of which 19 members had publicly criticized the treaty.
More dangerously, Sadat tried to solve his biggest political crisis in 1981, when he arrested activists from the across political spectrum and called for a public referendum on his anti-democratic measures.
Unlike Nasser, who used the public referendum only four times, Sadat used the thinly-veiled ‘democratic’ tool ten times, with most resulting in the consolidation of his power.
The most influential referendum under Sadat, which still influences the current political scene, is the May 1980 referendum on modifying the constitution, in which 98.96 percent voted in favor of the proposed changes to the 1971 Constitution.
This gave Sadat license to change the original Article 77 of the Constitution, which limited the president to two six-year terms. He also changed Article 2 of the Constitution, adding a clause that “Islam is the religion of the State, Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia Law).”
Article 2 is at the heart of the current referendum debate over whether Egyptians should approve constitutional amendments that do not change the controversial article. Coptic Christians, for example, say it codifies state discrimination against minorities.
Ironically, Sadat didn’t benefit from changing Article 77, his successor Mubarak turned out to be the sole benefactor of the amendment, serving almost five presidential terms.
In his 30 years in office, Mubarak ordered seven public referendums, four of them were presidential referendums, two were held to approve the constitutional amendments of 2005 and 2007 and one to dissolve parliament in 1987.
Mubarak received more than 90 percent approval in presidential referendums, but low turnout was often reported.
After more than 90 percent turnout in the previous referendums, only 53.6 percent turnout was reported in 2005 during the constitutional referendum, with 82.9 percent voting in favor. But in the widely criticized constitutional referendum of 2007, the turnout was officially 27.1 percent, with a reported 75.9 percent voting yes.
Egyptians believe that they have changed the course of history by toppling a despotic ruler through popular revolt, but will they change history by voting “no” in a referendum?
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