Juan Cole

Boycott of Constitution Vote Would Be a ‘Disaster’

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The left, liberal and centrist parties grouped in the National Salvation Front have decided to campaign for a “no” vote on the constitution in the two-part referendum that begins on Saturday, rather than boycotting it, assuming certain conditions are met.

The decision came in the wake of large dueling demonstrations on Tuesday by the left and liberals on the one hand and the fundamentalists on the other.

The National Salvation Front parties actually requested that the referendum be delayed, so that a proper national dialogue could be conducted on the 25 most controversial articles of the new constitution, which was primarily drafted by supporters of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

One of the demands of the Front is that the referendum be conducted all in one day. But the office of President Muhammad Morsi announced Thursday that the referendum will be held on two separate days. It is thought that this step was made necessary because so many judges are refusing to supervise the balloting.

The other four conditions for participation outlined by the National Salvation Front are: Judges must supervise all the ballots; there must be security for voters coming out to cast their ballots; there must be local and international election observers; and the results must be announced at each voting place as soon as the ballots are counted.

Since the president clearly will not meet one of these five conditions, i.e. the vote won’t be held all in one day, it is not clear whether the Front will make good on its threat to boycott.

In my view, a boycott would be a disaster, since it would ensure that the constitution passes, but would also indicate that much of the country is opposed to the constitution. The idea that a boycott can undermine such measures by demonstrating low turnout is a little weird, since I can’t think of an instance in which the tactic actually had any practical success. For that you would need a win at the ballot box, and you can’t get there by boycotting.

I am puzzled by the Front demand that the vote be held all on one day. If a week separates the two days on which voting can be carried out, that would give the opposition more time to organize and get out a ‘no’ vote.

Both the relatively secular forces and the fundamentalist religious parties were furiously canvassing on Thursday, holding rallies and meetings all over the country. The Muslim Brotherhood plans to harangue voters after Friday prayers later today.

The Salafi-Jihadi hard line group forbade its followers (who are not that numerous) from participating in the referendum, saying that only God can legislate and that democracy is incompatible with Islam. This view, which once had wide currency, is now that of a tiny fringe.

Egypt’s vigorous student movement split on the constitution. The National Student Union came out in favor of the draft, while many local chapters announced that they would vote ‘no.’ Those opposed characterized the constitution as that of ‘businessmen and presidential tyranny.’

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