Referendum victory a hollow one for Morsi

President Morsi must turn his attention from parliamentary politics to building a genuine consensus

After a first round of voting in Egypt’s referendum on a new constitution, the ‘yes’ campaign is set for certain victory. Ten out of 27 governorates have voted, and the ‘yes’ vote is in the clear with 57 per cent, according to the first, unofficial count. The margin of victory is only likely to widen when the remaining 17 governorates vote on 22 December.

President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood will claim this as a victory. But, as I argue in my latest article for MEED, if the government continues to dictate terms to its citizens in the manner that it has done in the past few weeks, it could be a meaningless one.

The Freedom & Justice party and the Salafist Al-Nour party continue to dominate formal politics in the new Egypt, making Morsi’s victory in the referendum no surprise. But there is a substantial movement in Egyptian politics that does not feel represented by the current government.

When Morsi prevailed over Ahmed Shafik in the presidential election in June, he did so by the narrowest of margins, winning just 51 per cent of the vote. And yet when it came to choosing a constituent assembly to draw up the new constitution, liberal, secular and minority interests were marginalised to such an extent that several members walked out in protest.

In late November, Morsi compounded the situation by issuing a decree stating that his authority could not be challenged by any other institutions of state, at least until after the referendum. Under pressure, he later reversed the decree, but the damage was already done.

By this stage, Morsi was already being seen among opponents as just the latest incarnation of the kind of autocratic ruler embodied by deposed former president Hosni Mubarak. This, coupled with the opposition’s organisational weakness and lack of strategic direction, has left Egyptian politics in a state of total imbalance.

The contents of the constitution are, by and large, uncontroversial. But Morsi’s failure to build a consensus behind the text has meant that any faith that remained that his government could be representative of more than its own narrow interests has now gone.

With the constitution all but passed, and Islamists expected to dominate the next round of parliamentary elections, which will probably be held in February or March next year, Morsi’s grip on the formal institutions of state is all but assured.

But this puts him in a more delicate position than ever. Morsi’s greatest challenge is to rebuild Egypt’s shattered economy. This will require some deeply unpopular measures, including cutting subsidies and raising taxes.

If Morsi is to break the cycle of demonstrations and street violence that has been a constant feature of Egyptian politics since the unseating of Mubarak in February 2011, the broad political consensus that he has so far failed to create is more important than ever.

But, after a divisive referendum on the constitution, it is as far away as it has ever been.

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Richard Nield is a freelance journalist, photographer and filmmaker covering the Middle East and Africa. In 10 years covering the region, he has been published and broadcast by clients including the BBC, Reuters, Al Jazeera, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Independent and Foreign Policy magazine. He has reported from throughout the region, including Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, South Sudan, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.