Save the worsening snarls of traffic, March 19 was a near perfect day in Egypt’s capital city of Cairo. The sun shone gently down upon orderly, sex-segregated queues of Egyptians who stood for hours to vote “yes” or “no” on emergency amendments to the country’s constitution. Although there have been three other constitutional referenda in the past six years, the plebiscite of 2011 was the first to capture the time and attention of the multitudes. It seemed that no one wanted to miss the historic, hope-filled occasion — for many of those who patiently waited, March 19 was the first time they had voted at all. Later, official estimates put the turnout at 41 percent, a rate completely unheard of in a country where citizens, many of them given material incentives, had dribbled in to rubber-stamp a predetermined outcome, usually, yet another presidential term for Husni Mubarak. The winding lines in and of themselves set off sparks of national pride. One young woman smiled when asked about the long wait, joking, “Lines are more organized after the revolution.”
The amendments were devised by an eight-man committee of legal minds including celebrated public intellectual Tariq al-Bishri and former Muslim Brother parliamentarian Subhi Salih. These men took ten days to address the deficiencies in Egypt’s 1971 constitution, a document light on protected rights and heavy on executive powers. As the committee was appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military body that took the reins of government upon Mubarak’s resignation, the proposed changes were the first major signal of where Egypt’s post-Mubarak transition might be headed. Rather than tackling the task of creating a new constitution, the committee was charged only with revising nine articles of the existing document, including those related to presidential term limits, the requirement to appoint a vice president and provisions for drafting a new constitution after the parliamentary and presidential elections that are slated for September and November, respectively.
Would Egyptians accept or reject the proposed amendments? Most analysts seemed to think the referendum would pass, as in fact it did. Many were surprised that it passed by such a large margin, a super-majority of 77 percent. The uncertainty of the outcome was the point: For the first time since the Free Officers’ coup of 1952, no one knew for certain which way the result of a balloting exercise would break. Despite a mass text message from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to the effect that “the referendum on constitutional amendments equals democracy,” implying the army wanted a “yes” vote, a group of citizens had launched an enthusiastic “no” campaign. And the measure had both supporters and detractors among the revolutionary-minded Egyptians who began the Middle East’s largest democratic experiment on January 25. For its openness and high rate of participation, the referendum must be hailed as a success, despite the numerous questions about Egypt’s future that it leaves unresolved.
Get in Line
On the evening before the plebiscite, at a restaurant in the posh island neighborhood of Zamalek, a few middle-aged “no” organizers shared copies of professionally designed handouts that denounced the amendments as an attempt to dress up an unsalvageable, autocratic national charter. The “no” activists felt that the September parliamentary elections should be postponed to give Egyptians more time to organize alternatives to the remnants of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Society of Muslim Brothers. If the referendum passed, they said, Egypt would remain in the dubious legal universe arranged by deposed President Mubarak and his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat to allow elections to be fixed. Their sincerity was admirable, but they seemed to be working in relative isolation. They did not know, for instance, if similar groups were agitating against the amendments in provincial towns and rural areas.
Another liberal, a prominent Egyptian historian, declared with equal passion that he would vote “yes.” His assent was pragmatic, he explained, aimed at removing the military from politics as soon as possible. There was some irony in the fact that such “yes” voters were in the same camp, essentially, as their bitter political opponents, the NDP holdovers and the Muslim Brothers, both of whom want a fast transition to elections. The old NDP people have accrued advantages of money and high-level contacts. Many feel, as well, that the Brothers’ previous electoral experience unfairly advantages them in early elections. The Brothers argued, for their part, that a “no” vote augured an “uncertain fate” for Egypt, in the words of their spokesman Essam al-Erian. An affirmative vote was also the choice of the rising salafi trend, which asked its small constituency to say “yes” in order to preserve Article 2 of the constitution, which names Islam as the state religion and shari‘a as the “principal source of legislation.”
In the end, and despite the heated disagreements and competing rallies in Tahrir Square, the referendum went off extremely well. Absent were the Interior Ministry figures to whom election observers had grown accustomed, stuffing ballot boxes while riot police blocked the polling station entrances to everyone but those bussed in by NDP apparatchiks with 20-pound notes bulging out of their pockets. The dark shadows of those experiences remained, however, as Egyptians pored over the minutiae of electoral procedure. From the early morning of March 19, for example, rumors circulated of ballots that were missing the official stamp — the eagle featured on the Egyptian flag — hence rendering them invalid. Other gossip said that hundreds of ballots bearing the stamp were found in the streets of Asyout in Upper Egypt, leading one voter to vent, “It’s the same old crap as always.” Yet the fears proved unfounded as the vote proceeded with very few irregularities.
At a polling station in the middle-class Qasr al-‘Ayni district, which recorded the most “no” votes in the country, the Mubarak-appointed governor of Cairo, ‘Abd al-‘Azim Wazir, showed up with bodyguards and an ten-person entourage. He made his way through the center of the queues. The former head of the umbrella protest movement Kifaya, George Ishaq, objected as the governor passed by, “I thought we were done with these stories!” It turned out that Wazir was there not to vote, but merely to associate his personage with the proceedings. After giving his regards to those in the voting area, he left. As he remerged in the courtyard, someone yelled, “Get in line! You are not better than us!” Applause broke out, as others started chanting “Out! Out!” Outside, the governor tried to explain himself to the press, and a journalist asked him, “Why didn’t you just tell them [the voters inside] that?” It is a new Egypt, but the habits of entitlement have yet to die.
If Qasr al-‘Ayni was a “no” district, ‘Agouza was more evenly divided. In 2005, the government had rigged the ‘Agouza vote against the Muslim Brother candidate. In 2011, the lines at one polling station extended out into the street, containing a cross-section of Egyptian society, including many families with children. Volunteer poll monitors wore bright yellow vests. As voters ascended to the upper floors of the station to cast their ballots, they stepped aside to allow the elderly to skip ahead in line. A young woman, Sara ‘Isam, explained that she was voting “no” because she feared “the Muslim Brothers and NDP would be too powerful if elections were held soon. Besides, a new constitution would be a present for Mother’s Day.”
Boulaq al-Dakrour, site of the secret “twenty-first demonstration” that helped start the uprising on January 25,  provided another window upon the referendum. Its tight living quarters and narrow alleys are characteristic of many poor neighborhoods in Cairo. On March 19, the Gamal Abdel Nasser school was nearly overwhelmed with activity. The Tahrir Square slogan, “The army and the people are one hand,” seems to exert a strong discursive effect in this part of the capital. An elderly woman named Nadya Abu Gabir expressed her gratitude to the army for securing the vote. She had even made a sign thanking the army, which hung prominently from the school’s facade. She was not concerned that the “yes” vote she was casting might delay deeper reform. “We can get a new constitution later.” A man interjected that a “yes” vote was imperative: “It has not just been 30 years. It’s been 60 years of oppression. Mubarak was oppressive and we must try him!” At that moment, a security officer in sunglasses and a suit, a gun holstered on his right hip, cut off the conversation.
Boulaq al-Dakrour was obviously a majority “yes” district. One man said he voted “yes” because he was worried about economic stability after the revolution. Another man asked when the United States would have a revolution to change its policy toward Israel. Still others said they voted “yes” for the sake of stability. This sentiment produced an argument, as another citizen threw up his hands, “Yes to stability! Is this stability?” Recriminations flew, with some scolding others for scandalizing the area in front of foreigners and others shouting that, in a democracy, everyone is entitled to their opinions.
Up With the Army
There were equally vigorous arguments about the results. One former NDP official, who requested anonymity, said the referendum’s passage “shows that the protesters that led the so-called revolution do not enjoy popular or national support. Their movement succeeded because of the state’s mismanagement.”  Other observers argued the referendum showed the strength of the Muslim Brothers, at a minimum, when it aligns itself with the military. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, for its part, maintained a sphinx-like silence.
While it generated a great deal of civil debate, the plebiscite’s result is not so easy to read. One cannot confidently claim, as the Muslim Brother leader Muhammad Mursi does, that it reveals popular confidence in the alterations to the constitution. The “yes” outcome has less to do with the content of the amendments than the army’s overall handling of the transition away from Mubarak. Indeed, it might be argued that March 19 saw a referendum on the army. Those voting “no” demand a new constitution as a way of ensuring that no general will emerge as a presidential candidate or vice presidential appointee. The liberals among the “yes” voters accepted the amendments, notwithstanding their flaws, to get the military out of power. But on balance, the majority of the Egyptians who approved the referendum also approve of all that the army has done.
The overwhelming “yes” sentiment around the country seems to originate in a genuine belief in the military’s benevolent, stabilizing role. Though the Supreme Council members are inserting former officers of the hated “state security” apparatus into the new “national security” agency, they are overseeing an expanding campaign to punish the former civilian political elite. Though the Mubarak appointees on the Supreme Council govern without accountability or transparency, a real constituency of Egyptians appears to believe they are steering the country capably out of the most corrupt phase in its history. Understanding that a majority (especially outside Cairo and Alexandria) is searching for political and economic stability through the military is crucial to understanding Egypt’s new political field. At the very least, the Supreme Council generals appear to have this impression, which may be leading them to recalibrate their plans as the parliamentary and presidential elections approach. The fact that the March 19 vote was free and fair allowed the authorities to gather precious electoral data for engineering a democratic transition — or, more precisely, a transition that will look democratic.
Under Mubarak, after all, Egypt’s meager turnout rates spun a fiction about the realities of political participation. So few citizens voted, and so contrived were the choices on offer, that no one can be sure which provinces or urban precincts are the natural bases of which political figure or ideological tendency. The amendments could just as easily have been decreed into existence. And so, though no one outside the Supreme Council’s corridors can know for sure, it seems that allowing a free and fair vote on the constitutional amendments was partly intended to give Egypt’s military rulers a snapshot of how the country votes. The 77 percent super-majority won by the referendum was small enough not to evoke instant laughter, as Mubarak’s “reelection” tallies (88 percent in 2005) had done, and thus added a veneer of popular legitimacy to the army’s guidance of national affairs. And the voter mapping data can be used in the campaigns to come.
The Army and the Brothers
The popular revolution of January-February has thus far produced a structural change in the governing coalition of Egypt without producing regime change per se. That coalition, as it evolved under Mubarak, was made up of the president and his circle of rotating ministers, the president’s son Gamal’s economic reform team, crony capitalists who grew rich under Sadat and Mubarak, the intelligence and security services, and the army. The regime’s strategy for presenting a “democratic” face to the West was to emplace select members of the first three groups (among which there was some overlap) at the head of its electoral vehicle, the NDP. The military, though it has been the prime beneficiary of the regime’s aid packages from Washington, was an institution in decline, as it was increasingly forced to compete for resources with the Interior Ministry and Gamal Mubarak’s team, composed heavily of a younger, somewhat flashier generation of crony capitalists. Press accounts during and after the revolution have likely exaggerated the military’s role in the economy, which in fact has been shrinking.  The ouster of Mubarak allowed the military to return to prominence as the disciples of the Washington consensus were dropped from the ruling coalition and the purveyors of domestic spying and torture were re-disciplined under the military’s hierarchy.
As the Egyptian citizenry commanded the initiative for the first time since the January 1977 bread riots, the changes at the top of the regime underscored a predicament for the army. Despite the appearance of tanks and other armored vehicles on the streets of the capital on January 28, the army seems to have calculated that its crowd control capacity was all or almost nothing. Amidst a revolutionary situation, that is, the army faced a Hobson’s choice between the grimmest of repression, firing automatic weapons on the assembled protesters, and the Interior Ministry’s old techniques of tear gas and hand-to-hand combat, which the crowds had already defeated. Much debate in Cairo has swirled around the question of whether an order to fire was given and disobeyed, as is said to be the case in Tunisia, but the question is moot. The fact is that the military, once it determined that Mubarak could not survive, opted out of the Hobson’s choice altogether. Indeed, it staged shows of support for the crowds, going so far as to turn the turrets of tanks toward the presidential palace as revolutionaries gathered outside the building on the morning of February 11.
Yet its decision not to disperse the crowds presented the military with a political problem after Mubarak’s departure. Having posed as the people’s champion for 18 days, its crowd control capacity was even more restricted. Meanwhile, it was left holding Mubarak’s bag of widely hated policies, from the emergency law to enforcement of the blockade of Gaza. The NDP was discredited and demobilized (save some hired thugs), and the police were gone from the streets, leaving a sense of ambient disorder and lawlessness in Cairo and other cities. This feeling was sharpened by reports that state security agents had emptied several prisons of convicts. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces needed means of outreach, not repression, as it entered this new political era. Without a plan of their own, they built upon what they inherited from outgoing Vice President ‘Umar Sulayman (r. January 29-Febrary 10, 2011), who had begun to design a way out of the predicament before he and Mubarak were jettisoned.
On February 6, with the wounds of open battle in Tahrir Square still fresh, Vice President Sulayman called for “national dialogue” between the regime and the opposition. The nascent organizations representing the protesting youth eschewed participation in such efforts until Mubarak stepped down, but other elements accepted, including the formal opposition parties, the self-appointed “wise men” who were trying to broker a constitutional compromise and the Muslim Brothers. According to defectors from the Brothers’ ranks, the initial day of “dialogue” led to a series of secret meetings between Sulayman and the Islamist group in which the vice president asked the Brothers to send their members home from the square in exchange for an expanded political role.  While Sulayman soon left the stage, this agreement seems to have stayed in place for the duration of the short-lived Ahmad Shafiq government and to remain valid now that ‘Isam Sharaf is premier. When Sharaf was introduced to the masses in Tahrir Square on March 4, he claimed, “I am here to draw my legitimacy from you. You are the ones to whom legitimacy belongs.” A Muslim Brother leader, Muhammad al-Baltagi, appeared by his side. Earlier, the Supreme Council had appointed a Muslim Brother as one of its eight draftsmen of amendments to the suspended 1971 constitution. Muhammad Habib, a former deputy guide of the Brothers who has now left the group, was explicit in his reading of these moves: “The military realized they could not control domestic stability yet still uphold unpopular foreign policies. They are using the Brothers to serve as this domestic source of stability.”  While it is impossible to know for sure if such a deal was struck, the patterns of interaction emerging in post-Mubarak Egypt seem to confirm the thesis.
Since the fall of Mubarak, the Brothers’ decision-making body, the Guidance Office, has been a reliable partner of the Supreme Council’s generals. The Brothers’ communiqués have been filled with praise for the Supreme Council’s pronouncements. When, shortly after Mubarak’s exit, sectarian clashes broke out in the village of Soul, south of Cairo, the Brothers dispatched teams to lead reconciliation talks between Copts and Muslims in the area. They continue to support the army’s goal of “national unity” through outreach to the Coptic Church hierarchy and meetings with Christian youth. The general guide, Muhammad Badi‘, sent his regards to the Coptic pope after the pontiff’s brief treatment in a hospital.
Meanwhile, the Brothers’ leadership implored the rank and file to quit protesting and return to work, for the sake of the economy, and then to vote “yes” on the constitutional amendments. Indeed, the Brothers have been models of acquiescence compared to the man everyone thought would be the military’s candidate in prospective elections, former Foreign Minister and serving Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Moussa has dissented from the Supreme Council’s preferred course, voting “no” on the amendments and criticizing the army’s management of the transition in the press.  For some, such as Habib, the explanation for the apparent military-Muslim Brother entente lies in groupthink inside the Guidance Office, which he says has blinded them to the role they are playing. Habib believes the Brothers have badly miscalculated in betting on the army to oversee a transition favorable to the Brothers’ interests. As he scoffs, “After they smelled freedom, they ran behind the Council.”
The Brothers, for their part, concentrate in their interviews on the repression they have undergone in the past and their adjustment to their newly unfettered political space. As Khayrat al-Shatir, a senior Brother who has spent 12 of the last 19 years in prison, explained, “The group recognizes that times have changed. We cannot manage our meetings and information in the way that we had. But this was never a function of secrecy, as analysts said. It was because of the oppressive climate in which we had to operate.”  Other leaders are more circumspect, preferring to speak in clipped replies more characteristic of the pre-revolutionary NDP than the ordinarily prolix Brothers.
It has been reported that Muslim Brother youths have mounted an internal intifada, presumably against the Brothers’ cooperation with the army, but leaders are not forthcoming on the topic. Muhammad Saad al-Kitatni, head of the Brothers’ delegation in the parliament serving from 2005-2010, says vaguely, “There are some ideas coming in, but there are also discussions taking place. The youth just met with the general guide last week.”  Others, such as al-Shatir, seem dismissive, contending that most of the youth who object to the Society’s present course are not full members of the Muslim Brothers, only sympathizers.
As for future plans, the Brothers are thin on details — whether the question is which districts they plan to contest in September’s legislative elections or under what banner they will run. Al-Kitatni has been named head of a new (though still formally unannounced) Freedom and Justice Party affiliated with the Brothers, but little information is available about this party other than the stipulation that “any Egyptian citizen that agrees with the program and internal platform can join.” In fact, when asked who else from the Brothers would be joining the party, al-Kitatni responded, “People are still discussing this. Right now, it’s just me.”
In pre-revolutionary Egypt, the Muslim Brothers were known for their unwavering criticism of the various exclusionary mechanisms of Egypt’s rulers. Not today. On March 26, for example, the Supreme Council’s cabinet of ministers released a draft political parties law. Just like the Mubarak-era law, it contains a clause stating that parties founded on sectarian, religious or regional bases are illegal. Under Mubarak, this clause was widely understood as targeting the Brothers. Rather than appeal to its religiously based constituency to protest this fresh injustice, however, the Brothers took the continuity in stride. Essam al-Erian, the near ubiquitous voice of the group in the Egyptian press, shrugged it off: “The Muslim Brothers group will not turn into a party. The political party we are now founding is a civil one, based on the principles of citizenship.”  Perhaps the Brothers are willing to play the same game with the army that they played with Mubarak, accepting that their Society is technically outlawed and cannot enter the political arena except under various thin disguises. If so, the military-Muslim Brother alliance would ensure a degree of social peace, perhaps, but would hardly be a step toward a transparent and truly free political system in Egypt.
Can such an alliance last? Habib thinks the Society is setting itself up for a crackdown on the magnitude of 1954. Then, in the wake of an assassination attempt on President Gamal Abdel Nasser ascribed to the Brothers, the regime jailed the Islamists by the thousands. Others suggest that the entente does not necessarily have to turn out so poorly. It is entirely plausible, after all, that neither the Brothers nor the military have any definitive plans in the tumult of post-Mubarak Egypt.
Will They Stay or Will They Go?
In late February, the International Crisis Group published an important report on the half-revolution, half-military intervention that removed Husni Mubarak from power.  One of the report’s key arguments is that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is keen to move the country to civilian government as quickly as possible. The essential motive is to recuse the generals from political responsibility when the high expectations raised by the revolution deflate and discontent settles back into society. At the time of the report’s publication, the International Crisis Group was spot on. But things may be changing.
One should not, first of all, mistake the army’s reluctance to govern for aversion to rule.  The army is, in fact, accustomed to ruling Egypt in some measure, though with a civilian visage. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was compelled to stand in front of the curtain when Mubarak was dismissed, but it would happily return backstage if it was confident that government’s civilian minders would defer to military prerogatives. The question is which political figure would be credible, to the West and the Egyptian people, as a face to “civilianize” the regime. Much speculation to date has centered on Amr Moussa. Given his long record of cooperation with the system, with some minor blips, Moussa would be an agent of the status quo who would protect the military’s political and economic interests around the country while appearing to represent change. Moussa’s domestic credibility would be enhanced by his reputation for being tougher on Israel than his former masters — a stance that is said to have led to him being kicked upstairs from the Egyptian chancery to the Arab League. Such a deal would produce an informal closed power-sharing agreement excluding the very democratizing forces that ushered in the military as governors.
Yet even the best-laid plans go awry. It cannot have helped Moussa’s standing with the Supreme Council that he rejected the proposed constitutional amendments in the referendum despite the military’s unstated but widely known support for the changes. Indeed, by voting “no,” Moussa and other formally announced presidential candidates threw in their lot with those elements wishing to enshrine the revolution’s culture of rejection of incremental change. Are these candidates out of touch with the wider country that supports the military, the Brothers and a fast transition? And can the army, which returned to glory for sending Mubarak off into the Sharm al-Sheikh sunset, simply walk away despite enjoying such broad and deep popularity? Most rush to say it is too soon to tell.
There is, indeed, much left to play out in Cairo. The revolution is far from over. Yet, as the Islamist trends continue to expand their political influence, many of the secular forces that spurred on the revolution may have second thoughts. If the Brothers were to overachieve in September’s parliamentary elections, how would Egyptian society and Egypt’s external patrons respond?
Given such uncertainties, and for all the army’s clumsiness in transmitting its aims to the public, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that someone like the chief of staff, Gen. Sami ‘Inan, could retire from the Supreme Council and run for executive office. Like many of his fellow generals, ‘Inan is now partaking of the same social networking websites that helped the revolutionaries publicize their achievements in January and February. Most players, such as the liberal Ghad party leader Wa’il Nawwara, seem certain that the prospect of another general-president is a non-starter. “Impossible,” he declares.  So, if putting up its own candidate seems too brazen, the military could run a candidate such as the docile new prime minister ‘Isam Sharaf, who then appoints a vice presidential candidate who just happens to be a former general.
As each day passes, the Supreme Council seems to gain a surer footing, as evidenced by its issuance of increasingly Mubarak-like laws. On March 23, the Council’s ministerial cabinet promulgated a new law saying that those who harm the economy with public demonstrations could be subject to fines of 500,000 Egyptian pounds (over $83,000) and/or prison sentences. The law targets sectors like the police forces that have continuously struck since February 11, but could just as easily be applied to the industrial actions and street protests that composed the revolution. Similarly, on March 30, Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shahin announced a “constitutional declaration” wherein the amendments ratified by referendum were nine of 63 articles, most of which reaffirmed laws of the Mubarak era. One of the more familiar stipulations was the provision that parties cannot be religious, sectarian or regional in character. For many political activists, the declaration was a deep disappointment revealing the Supreme Council to be disdainful of consultative governance or even explanation of its reasoning.
Many Egyptians have begun to grumble about the military’s increasingly prominent role. A well-attended April 1 protest in Tahrir Square called upon Field Marshal Husayn Tantawi, Mubarak’s minster of defense, to resign from the Supreme Council and for swifter action toward putting the men of the deposed regime on trial for corruption and other offenses. On April 6, Tantawi appeared to respond to one of these demands, announcing formation of a committee to investigate Mubarak himself. Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and other politicians associated with the revolution applauded the committee as a positive step. But Mubarak was already sacrificed to the crowds; the real test of the army’s commitment to democracy lies ahead. The March 19 referendum may have led the army to bank on a silent majority of Egyptians who will cling to the institution they have known for the past 60 years in place of the Brothers or protesters who call for further mobilization and disruption to normal life. Discontent with the military is growing, and one can expect more popular mobilizations to safeguard the revolutionary process Egyptians began by heroically overthrowing their dictator of 30 years. Yet the linchpin of the Supreme Council’s strategy seems predicated on the calculations that the center of Egyptian politics is fairly unquestioning support for the army around the country and that this center will hold.
A great contest to define the center is underway and the outcome remains thoroughly uncertain. The only certainty is that, after an exhilarating spring, Egypt is in for a hot summer.
Author’s Note: Thanks to Jason Brownlee, Ellis Goldberg and Hesham Sallam for helpful comments.
 Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2011.
 Interview with former NDP official, Cairo, March 21, 2011.
 New York Times, February 17, 2011.
 Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 31, 2011.
 Interview with Muhammad Habib, Cairo, March 23, 2011.
 Al-Misri al-Yawm, March 31, 2011.
 Interview with Khayrat al-Shatir, Cairo, March 24, 2011.
 Interview with Muhammad Saad al-Kitatni, Cairo, March 23, 2011.
 Mona El-Nahass, “Party Time,” al-Ahram Weekly, March 31-April 6, 2011.
 International Crisis Group, Egypt Victorious? (Cairo/Brussels, February 2011).
 For background on the army’s role, see Steven Cook, Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria and Turkey (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
 Interview with Wa’il Nawwara, Cairo, March 21, 2011.