On Tuesday, Egypt plunged into constitutional crisis. The government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi claimed victory in a referendum on constitutional changes despite clear signs of election tampering. Human rights groups were quick to condemn the result as a sham. The European Union issued a statement reminding Egypt of its commitments to the rule of law, judicial independence, and free speech and assembly.
And yet, before the dust had settled on this seismic political event, Sissi addressed the nation from the presidential palace in Cairo. He said he would renew the nationwide state of emergency for three more months.
To Egyptians, there was something depressingly familiar about this turn of events. Since taking office by force and fraud, Sissi has frequently fallen back on the emergency law and accusations of “terrorism” to silence dissent. Unsatisfied with the power he already wields as president, he invokes “stability” or “threats against the nation” to excuse his latest criminal act. Now, having made himself a de facto ruler for life by forcing through constitutional change, he grants himself emergency power to consolidate his victory.
Here his aim is sleight of hand. Misdirection and illusion are powerful weapons in the autocrat’s armory, and Sissi has used them both masterfully to persuade those watching abroad to indulge or ignore his ongoing project of one-man rule. In calling for a state of emergency, he is downplaying the referendum vote. And more than that: He is downplaying what that vote means for him, and for the future of Egypt.
Sissi claimed a “landslide” victory of 88.83 percent based on a turnout of more than 27 million people. But this was patently false. This is the man who “won” his last presidential election by 97 percent, despite mass boycotting. He repeatedly shut down our opposition “Void” campaign, which has obtained 700,000 signatures from Egyptians agreeing to vote “no” in the referendum. And he blocked 34,000 websites so that Egyptians could not sign an online petition against the referendum. Does this sound like a man confident — and deserving — of victory?
Indeed, polling station data shows that, despite the claims made by the government, the turnout for the vote was less than 7 percent domestically and 2.5 percent abroad. The Carnegie Middle East Center has concluded that if the government’s figures were true, then every polling station would have had to process more than one vote every minute. Just as in the case of Sissi’s sham election to the presidency, there was no heavy turnout. What took place instead was a boycott — in the tens of millions.
But anyone in Egypt will know this. It becomes even clearer when compared to the previous referendum in 2011, in which 18 million people took part. Back then, you could see the people lined up for hours at the polling stations to make themselves heard, but this time the polling stations were virtually empty. The Sissi regime does not even bother trying hide its duplicity. It publicized the fact that Egyptians carrying signs with the word “no,” to express their rejection of the referendum, were arrested. It admitted that food packages were exchanged for “yes” votes. It even conceded that private citizens were forcibly transported to polling stations — even if they had already voted.
And even if you were to ignore these clear signs of malfeasance, there is a wealth of evidence elsewhere that the law was broken. The constitutional changes were never discussed publicly, and many Egyptians only learned of them during the final session of parliament. The referendum was called within 48 hours of the bill’s passage through parliament when the process, according to previous practice, should have taken 15 to 30 days. The voting process itself was unlawful, as the law requires that referendum items are voted on individually.
As part of the unified Egyptian opposition, who have long opposed Sissi’s constitutional changes and fought for the right of Egyptians to have a free and fair vote on the future of their country, we cannot recognize the referendum result. And we ask those nations that have so readily aligned themselves with Sissi to take a stand. Either we condemn this electoral farce and hold its architect accountable, or we risk the disintegration of the democratic principles on which so many great nations stand.
Now we are at a watershed moment in Egypt’s modern history. The recent amendments have led to a constitutional vacuum. Sissi’s power is absolute, and with the passage of this latest reform, he will remain in power for 10 more years and perhaps longer. Sissi has effectively ripped up our constitution, conceived as the foundational document of modern Egyptian society.
Recent events in Sudan and Algeria have shown that the mockery of ostensibly democratic institutions will not go unanswered forever. By turning a blind eye to events in Egypt, the West risks the stability of the most populous country in the Arab world. The same forces that preceded the fall of Mubarak are present in Egypt here today. Rather than waiting for change, the West must now pursue a democratic future for Egypt, for Egypt’s sake, and indeed the rest of the world.
Ayman Nour, a former Egyptian presidential candidate, is the leader of the Ghad Party.