Referendum around the corner

Well, the first milestone of Egypt's democratic transition will take place (we think) the day after tomorrow. The country is in an uproar over the referendum on constitutional amendments, with debates breaking out everywhere -- on the street, in doctors' waiting rooms, on Facebook --between those who will vote "yes" and those who will say "no." Young people are waiting in round-the-block lines to get into lectures about the amendments (!). 

(Ruby's 2004 song "Whenever I Tell Him Yes." It's jokingly circulating on Facebook as "the referendum song.")

I've laid out the arguments against the amendments already. So today I'll translate a little from a letter by professor and activist Leila Soueif, who says she is going to vote yes because she want to make sure the army is in power for the shortest possible time period, and she fears the consequences of the army's ongoing violence against citizens.

Soueif says that the army will never support "root change" and that the best way to move forward is to elect a parliament soon. She says that one shouldn't over-estimate the gains that the NDP and the Brotherhood will make in parliamentary elections if they are held in two months, arguing that "those who raise these fears ignore the difference between elections in which participation was very weak and elections in which participation will be much higher."  

"In the absence of a parliament," writes Soueif, "It's impossible to imagine that there will be amendments to the Universities Law, or the Judicial Powers Law, or the Administrative Prosecutor Law, or the Associations law, or the Labour law or the dozens of laws that require amendments as a first step towards social change..."

However the vote goes (and I do hope that it is at least generally organized and clean), it's been fascinating to watch this debate explode, and to see the level of political awareness and curiosity after so many years of cynicism and resignation. It strikes me that there is quite a bit of discomfort not just with challenges to authority but with differences of opinion in Egyptian society today, and part of the road ahead is learning to publicly, forcefully but civilly disagree. Unfortunately, the army is proving that it doesn't really get democracy and public debate by issuing an order that nobody discuss the referendum for the next 48 hours. 

(Thanks for great links to Hossam and Mandouza)

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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.