Egypt’s referendum that never was

Egypt’s referendum that never was

Both Turkey and Egypt have set up constitutional commissions these past couple of years. The one in Egypt was established in March 2012 while Turkey’s became operational around October 2011. Last week, Egypt’s concluded its operation with a referendum that never materialized. We in Turkey are still waiting for the results of the commission. Why do I called the one in Egypt a referendum that never was? And why I am still quite optimistic about the one in Turkey? Here are a few comparisons between the two constitutional processes.

Both Egypt and Turkey are divided societies. Just compare the Egyptian presidential election results with Turkey’s last general elections in 2011. The drafting of a new constitution gave both of us the rare opportunity to unite our societies around common goals through open and fair discussion in 2012.

When designed properly, the mechanism of forging a new social contract can bring about national reconciliation. Egypt failed to seize this opportunity. Though the new constitution has been written and ratified through a referendum, social divisions remain. My Egyptian friends still think that a shave is the only thing separating Morsi from Mobarak. The referendum results show that my friends are by no means a minority. Egypt is still divided and the voter participation rate revealed by the ballot box was only in the thirties. Looks like double jeopardy, if you ask me.

In Turkey, on the other hand, the four political parties in Parliament, representing 95 percent of voters, are still sitting around the negotiation table. No single party has yet rammed a constitution through like the Muslim Brotherhood did in Egypt. Secondly, there is real, open negotiation on every conceivable topic ranging from federalism to education in the mother tongue. Leaving out the 1920s, when the national liberation war was managed directly by Parliament with Atatürk at its head, there is open and useful debate under the same roof. That did not happen in Egypt. A rather important distinction, if you ask me. Thirdly, for the first time in Turkish history, there is strong public demand for a new constitution.

That is, about three-quarters of citizens are demanding a constitution that represents a social consensus. Compare these with the lousy results in Egypt’s referendum.

This does not mean that Turkey will succeed where Egypt failed. Still, what is now happening in Turkey is very valuable. It is like the fable of the lame ant visiting Mecca for pilgrimage. When told of the chances of a crippled ant making the walk from western Anatolia to Mecca, the ant answered “then I will die on the way.” That is a greater deed than being a pilgrim, according to the Script.

I am still optimistic about the process in Ankara, not because of our chances, but because the stakes are high.