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In Egypt, Liberals Losing at Polls and in Streets

In much of Egypt, Islamists are dominating the streets as liberal protests fade away. Half the country is voting today in the second part of the referendum on Islamist President Morsi’s draft constitution today. Rival protestors are still clashing in cities like Alexandria, but the Islamists feel victory is heading their way.

The constitution won 57 percent approval in the first round of voting, and many predict that it will pass by an even larger margin in the last round, when rural, more religious parts of Egypt vote.

But the issues passing the constitution are only the beginning, as Reuters reports:

If the constitution is passed, national elections can take place early next year, something many hope will help end the turmoil that has gripped the Arab world’s most populous nation since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.

But the closeness of the first day of voting and the low turnout suggest more difficulties ahead for Mursi as he seeks to rally support for difficult economic reforms needed to bring down the budget deficit, such as raising taxes and cutting fuel subsidies.

Morsi insists that the constitution, and the controversial measures taken to put it through a referendum, are necessary steps for Egypt to move away from military rule and towards a constitution-based democracy. Sadly, at best he is half-right. While Egypt’s greatest problems can’t be solved without stable political institutions of some kind, having a constitution (even a much better one than the cobbled together document the Islamists hastily whooped through the Constituent Assembly before the judiciary could shut them down) won’t solve Egypt’s problems.

We’ve noted the core problem for Egypt before: to our knowledge, nobody on Planet Earth has a viable strategy to put this venerable country onto a path out of poverty. At their best—and Egypt’s new constitution is a muddled one—constitutions establish a set of institutions and some procedures that allow the peaceful resolution of political disputes and provide legitimacy for decisions reached through constitutional means.

If the Muslim Brotherhood had a workable plan to make Egypt successful and prosperous, a constitution would provide a framework through which the plan could be enacted and applied. But the constitution is not a magic carpet on which Egypt can fly to paradise. Given the country’s poor prospects, the most difficult problem facing the Muslim Brotherhood isn’t how to get the constitution passed in a referendum; it’s how a broke government in a depressed economy can meet the enormous demands of angry, poor Egyptians—or how it can keep power after the masses realize those demands cannot be met.

Constitutions are much less useful when facing problems of that kind.

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