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Legitimising the illegitimate: observation missions at the Egyptian constitutional referendum

On 14h and 15th January the Egyptian military-backed regime held a constitutional referendum in an attempt to bring legitimacy to the political developments that have taken place since the July 2013 coup, which ousted President Mohamed Morsi the country's first democratically elected president. In the ensuing months there has been widespread turmoil across the country with protestors demanding a return to democratic legitimacy. The wave of protests brought together a range of opposition forces from leftists through to the Muslim Brotherhood. Yet despite the protests the military regime has continued to impose its rule over the country. The constitution referendum has been an attempt to persuade Egyptians, and indeed the wider international community, that the military regime has popular support and the authority to rule.


Despite an apparent disregard for internationally accepted standards of democracy, the authorities are attempting to use their own version of democracy to instil 'support' for their rule and eventually a parliament and president that will be at the behest of the military. Indeed, General Al-Sisi has since claimed that he feels a responsibility to stand as president in the upcoming presidential elections. This would bring a return to the old style autocracy that Egyptians strove to defeat in January 2011. It is ironic that the military are using democratic methods to strengthen their rule. In the months of turmoil since the coup the authorities not only deposed the president, but have since detained him along with removing democratically elected members of parliament and detaining numerous members of the Muslim Brotherhood. The military went further when they declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation, effectively banning the party from elections.

The constitutional referendum has been an attempt to legitimise the regime. As with many elections in countries of political instability, election observer missions descended on Egypt. Yet, unlike in other circumstances a number of significant missions did not take part in the observations. Human rights lawyers had warned that a decision to observe the referendum would need to be carefully weighed, whilst the referendum should be observed to ensure that it is free and fair. Yet the lawyers noted that the referendum should not have been able to take place at all given that it was an undemocratic coup that brought about the circumstances for the referendum.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned that observing the referendum would legitimise "an undemocratic process in Egypt." Michele Dune, Carnegie's Middle East Program Senior Associate, noted that by taking part on the observation mission they would be lending support to the "Egyptian transitional government's efforts to focus attention on the technicalities of the post-coup political road map while diverting notice from a deeply troubling context." Carnegie was not alone in voicing concerns about the observation missions. The Carter Centre, one of the most prominent international election observers, announced that they would not monitor the referendum, but would send 10 legal observers to monitor legal aspects of the process. Their report highlighted a number of concerns about the context of the referendum. The centre called for dialogue amongst all parties and urged the involvement of all parties interested in Egypt's political future – oppositionists have been prevented from campaigning for a no vote in the referendum. One journalist noted that on his recent visit to Egypt he saw lots of posters urging a yes vote and not one campaigning for a no vote.

The National Democratic Institute, a non-governmental organisation that supports democratic institutions, described the coup in Egypt as "misguided." The organisation observed previous elections in Egypt, yet for the constitutional referendum the NDI had "no election activities planned." Amongst all observation missions the purveying concern has been that the referendum has come within a worrying political context that would prejudice elections in the country.

Some missions did go to Egypt to observe the referendum and though they were there to observe the actual elections, their reports did note that the context of the elections was a concern for the referendum. Catherine Ashton, the EU High representative stated: "ahead of the constitutional referendum on 14-15 January 2014, I would like to reassure the Egyptian people that the EU continues to support them in fulfilling the aspirations of the January 2011 revolution. Dignity, social justice, security, democracy, human rights, and a better economy remain the goals the EU stands by Egypt to achieve." Despite the EU having raised concerns with the Egyptian regime, the EU has continued to offer their support to them. The EU agreed to send a mission to observe the referendum because "Egypt remains an important partner to the European Union. The European Union continues to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt."

The largest observation mission was funded by the US Agency for International Development, which supported a mission by Democracy International. US government support for the referendum does not come as a surprise. Since the ousting of President Morsi, the US refuses to acknowledge that the events amounted to a coup. The US have continued to offer the Egyptian regime their support and despite some grievances around military aid, the US-Egyptian relationship has not drastically altered despite the undemocratic turn of events. The Democracy International program manager, Dan Murphy said they would be "certainly looking for procedures and whether they are being followed correctly. But at the same time you are looking to make sure voters seem like they are going and not being hassled."

The Transparency International Observation Mission did note that "the political context in the run-up to the referendum impaired conditions to hold a free and fair referendum when compared with international standards." Although the report did not actually call the events of July a coup, they did acknowledge that the regime had removed Morsi and detained him since July. The preliminary findings of the report were particularly scathing in some parts and noted that:

  • "Media coverage in state and private media was largely one sided."
  • "Politically motivated violence, intimidation and repression from state and non-state actors limited and conditioned citizen's political and electoral participation."
  • "Political party affiliated poll watchers were not allowed access to monitor polling."
  • "Political parties and civil society organizations voiced a concern about inaction or selective investigation of alleged electoral violations."

Although the report noted that those opposed to the referendum faced repression they also described the regime as having done "an impressive job in installing and maintaining databases."

All the observation missions did note that the political context of the referendum raised concerns about the freedom of the elections, raised concerns about the oppression of the Muslim Brotherhood and voiced concerns about the violence used against the opposition forces. However, having observed the referendum the missions did not acknowledge that the regime should not have ever had the authority to hold such a referendum. The military usurped power from the democratically elected president.

Whilst the mission's hope that the regime's political roadmap will lead them back to democracy, they fail to recognise that the very foundations of the regime's establishment were undemocratic. In the National news website, Youssef Hamza noted that the referendum was in fact a "dress rehearsal" for a presidential run by General Al-Sisi, leading to a return of the autocratic regimes of old. Yet this undemocratic dystopia is easily imaginable given the lack of respect for democracy that the regime appears to have. By observing the referendum, the missions have legitimised the illegitimate and given the undemocratic Egyptian regime the fa├žade of aiming for democracy.

Initial results suggest that Egyptians have voted yes to the constitution. Official government sources claim that the turnout for the referendum was between 34 – 38 percent. An independent organisation, the Arab Observatory for Rights and Freedoms put the turnout at 11.3 percent. Egypt's al-Ahram claimed that the referendum returned a result of 98 percent voting yes to the constitution.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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