Beyond Yes or No: What Egypt's Referendum Means

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Amr Abdallah / Reuters

Egyptian women vote in a national referendum at a school in Cairo on March 19, 2011

Ahmed is 19 years old, fresh-faced; he sports jeans and a gray "New York" T-shirt and wears his hair gelled back. Like most of his fellow Egyptians, he is young, relatively poor and lives in a dense urban area — specifically Helwan, a sprawling industrial suburb of Cairo dominated by the chimney stacks of nearby cement factories that leave the air thick and gritty. His thumb is stained a bright magenta, a sign that he has just voted — for the first time in his life. And like most Egyptians, he approved the amendments to the constitution that were put to a popular referendum on Saturday. For him, that yes vote was an endorsement of the revolution he participated in, occupying Tahrir Square last month until the only President he has known in his lifetime was forced to decamp.

But this is only one of the many meanings a yes vote in the referendum could have. The majority of the 77.2% that voted yes probably did so because they understood it as a vote for stability, a return to normalcy after the biggest political upheaval in decades. A no result would have been a challenge to the military now ruling the country, which could have either imposed the amendments anyway by decree or entered into protracted negotiations with a political landscape still in gestation. For others, including radical activists, a yes vote meant pushing the military back into its barracks as quickly as possible.

Those who voted no sometimes expressed opposition to specific amendments — like one banning dual nationals and those married to foreigners from running for President — or said they preferred to have an altogether new constitution. And yet others voted against the amendments because they saw that the military, elements of the former regime and Islamists were pushing for a yes while much of the opposition advocated no.

When the results were announced, many of the nos were depressed. They saw it as a victory for counterrevolutionary forces, a plot by the military to ram through a rapid transition plan that will not give new political forces time to get their footing. Many do not trust that the next parliament's obligation to draft a new constitution will be carried out in a democratic and inclusive fashion. They worry that former regime cronies, perhaps in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, will derail their hopes for a more progressive Egypt by rushing into a new (old) order. They wish they could have been given a better choice, like between keeping the current constitution as amended and immediately drafting a new one.

There are good reasons not to give the military the benefit of the doubt. It is toying with the public's fear of unrest and a stalled economic recovery to gain favor. It violently ended the occupation of Tahrir Square and has been accused of torturing protesters. Yet it is the only possible authority for the moment and does seem committed to a transition to civilian government. What the generals may be most fearful of, indeed, is that the political debate and new ideas now percolating through Egyptian society could manifest themselves among the ranks of their own officers and soldiers — hence the haste.

Whatever their decision and reasoning, Egyptians who voted in the referendum came out in large numbers — at 41% turnout, this was the most participative poll in decades — and did so with a great sense of civic duty. In places they queued for hours, with volunteers helping the elderly and distributing water and candy to those in line. Even if one did not like the outcome or the rushed manner in which the referendum was held, there was a national recognition that a rare moment of genuine political participation had taken place.

It used to be that when an election was held, few bothered to vote unless bribed or intimidated into doing so, thinking of the whole exercise as a predetermined farce. This time, even if it was far from perfect, it meant something.

El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer. He blogs at