Egypt: ‘Yes’ vote for referendum on constitutional amendments

Genuine democracy needed to make real political and social change

Egyptian people have just had their first vote since the revolution began – a referendum on changes to the constitution. A month after Mubarak’s downfall, Egypt’s ruling Armed Forces set 19 March as the date for a referendum on constitutional amendments. The amendments were drafted by a committee of ‘experts’ – appointed by the Armed Forces. They proposed shortening the President’s period of office from six to four years, with a maximum of two terms instead of an unlimited period. There were also restrictions to the emergency law, that had been used by Hosni Mubarak for thirty years and which gave him unlimited powers.

However, the amendments left the 1971 constitution in place, which gives the president vast powers. As one young man told reporters, “When the people protested they said they wanted the system to fall. The system included the constitution and the president. We want real change.”

Many Egyptians understand that replacing Mubarak with another president armed with the same sweeping powers would mean a continuation of the old order. This system condemned millions to poverty and used massive state repression to maintain the ruling class’s position and wealth.

By calling the referendum quickly, the Armed Forces want to give the impression that real change is taking place following the January 25th revolution. They sense that although the uprising has paused, mass struggle could break out again if workers and youth feel the ruling class is reasserting its power. Those calling for a “Yes” vote hope the illusion of change will be sufficient to prevent this. They also hope that discussion on the constitution will divert attention from the other democratic and economic demands that swept Egypt in the weeks following 25 January.

Most political parties and groups called for a “No” vote. The two exceptions were the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Democratic Party – Mubarak’s party! As the two best organised movements, they feel they have most to gain if early elections are held, and fear they have most to lose as other parties get organised.

To some extent, the government’s plan was successful. The amendments became a major topic of discussion and debate in cafes, on the street and in workplaces. The turnout of 41% was much higher than for the farcical rigged elections held under Mubarak, where probably only 5% voted. Queues of up to 200 metres formed outside polling stations, with many waiting patiently to vote for the first time in their lives. “I’m here to build a new country for my children,” one man told an Al-Misry al-Youm reporter. “I want a clean break with the past so the next generation can grow up in a new Egypt.”

Despite most reports indicating a “No” vote was likely, the constitutional amendments were approved by 77% to 23%. “They say it’s the best thing for peace. We want stability,” one man told a reporter.

Regime clinging to power

Although the old regime has been pushed to the edge of a steep cliff, it is managing to cling onto power by changing the faces of those at the top. It has been forced to accept the dismantling of the Security Services, responsible for torture, beatings and surveillance, after mass invasions of their bases. But no ruling class ever gives up its power without a massive struggle. Under the pressure of revolution, it will make any concessions it needs to maintain its position, intending to reclaim them when the mass movement eventually dies down.

Real change in the interests of workers, the poor and the youth requires genuine democratic change. Democratic popular committees in workplaces and neighbourhoods need to be built, linking up at city, regional and national level. These could then form the basis for a revolutionary constituent assembly and a government with a majority of workers and poor.

A workers’ government would introduce genuine democratic reforms, including annual elections for representatives, on average workers’ wages and subject to recall should they act against the interests of workers and the poor. It would also guarantee the right to organise independent trade unions, the right to strike and the right to organise political parties.

These are needed to struggle for decent pay and working conditions, guaranteed jobs, and also decent housing, education, pensions and healthcare. The newly formed independent trade unions need to build their own independent workers’ party to campaign for these ideas.

Egyptian capitalism is in crisis. The stock market has re-opened for the first time after almost two months, with share prices falling 8.9% on the first day back. Shareholders fear that companies will have to pay higher wages, hitting their profits. They are also frightened by workers’ demands to throw out managers and bosses corruptly linked to the old regime.

A socialist government would nationalise all the major companies and banks under democratic workers’ control, so that the economy could be planned in the interests of the big majority of the population, instead of being run for benefit of the rich.

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March 2011