Marc Lynch writes: Citizens of an Arab country recently went to the polls to vote in a highly-touted referendum designed to turn the page on a violent and authoritarian past. The relatively progressive new constitution — which promised multiparty democracy, expanded freedoms, and even provided for unprecedented term limits on the president — was approved overwhelmingly, with 89 percent of people voting in favor and turnout hitting 57 percent. The architects of the initiative hoped that it would restore some legitimacy to a regime that had badly lost internal and foreign approval.
Of course, the Syrian constitutional referendum of February 2012 did no such thing. And who thought that it would? In the context of a bloody civil war and the enduring oppression of a brutal authoritarian single party regime, everyone — even, probably, the most vocal pro-Assad loyalists — understood that the words on paper meant nothing.
It’s unlikely that many people thought of Syria’s farcical vote as they followed the news of Egyptians heading to the polls this week to vote on a new military-backed constitution. The official results showed that a whopping 98.1 percent of voters backed Egypt’s new charter — considerably more than in Syria’s referendum. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt is not Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, but the lessons from Damascus should not be lost on those seeking to parse the meaning of this referendum.
Syria’s swiftly forgotten bit of political theater helps to highlight what really matters about any constitutional referendum: Does the new document actually establish consensual and legitimate rules of the political game? That’s why Egypt’s political prisoners suffering for their political affiliation, peaceful protests, or journalism are a more crucial window into the real significance of the referendum than turnout or approval percentages. [Continue reading…]