Unofficial reports from Egypt confirm that its draft constitution has been passed by overwhelming numbers. About 90 per cent of the voters are believed to have said ‘yes’ at the two-day referendum. Although, technically, voters still had the chance to say ‘no’ at the ballot, that opportunity had been minimized, and not merely by the decision of the supporters of Mohamed Mursi, Egypt’s jailed former president, and members of the Muslim Brotherhood to boycott the polls. The transitional government had set afoot a mammoth operation to discourage dissent. That led to the arrest of scores of resenting Islamists and liberals, leaving almost no trace of a “no” campaign when Egypt held the referendum. Yet, when Mr Mursi had been brought down by the army six months ago, the military chief, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, had declared that there was “room for everyone” in Egypt.
The referendum is a testimony to this alarming shrinkage of room for rightful protest and political choice — fundamental ideals of the Arab Spring revolution. Thousands have been arrested and hundreds killed in Egypt, all in the name of protecting the country against “violence and terrorism” that the government of Mr Mursi was alleged to be promoting. This fear, felt by many at the advance of political Islam, a fear that the army judiciously cultivated and the Mursi administration did nothing to dispel, is the reason why Egypt has so disarmingly turned its back on its revolution. In its haste to prevent the return of the Muslim Brotherhood’s version of Islamism, Egypt has welcomed the army back to the centrestage. Egypt seems to have hardly noticed that the new constitution gives the military the power to decide who will be defence minister for eight years and thus the alibi to dictate government policy. The army now also has the power to try civilians in military courts, thus resuming the same powers it enjoyed during the era of the dictatorships of both Gamal Abdel Nasser and Hosni Mubarak. If General el-Sissi wins the presidency, as he seems all set to, Egypt may close the last gap that separates it from another bout of military rule. Its only consolation may be the constitution’s guarantee of protection of minority and gender rights. But in the shrunken space for political choice and individual freedoms, Egyptians may find that they have lost more than they have gained.