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The Arab awakening rumbles with discontent

WHEN Hosni Mubarak resigned as president in February last year, it seemed as if Egypt would reap a bountiful harvest of democracy from the Arab Spring.

The referendum on the draft constitution, the second stage of which took place in Saturday, however, is testament to the difficulties that lie ahead before representative government can be achieved.

The Muslim Brotherhood has claimed the constitution was passed with a 64% Yes vote. If, as expected, this is in line with the official result due to be released today, President Mohamed Mursi will have brought off a high-stakes gamble to secure his future. But he cannot claim to have the confidence of the Egyptian people.

The second round of voting in the contentious referendum on the draft constitution (which had to be split into two stages because so few Egyptian judges agreed to supervise it) has merely confirmed the deep divisions between those who support President Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood and those who oppose the increasing influence of the Islamists. Yet only around 30% of the electorate turned out to vote, due to distrust of the process amid allegations of vote-rigging and unexpectedly long queues at polling stations expected to return a high No vote.

By expanding his powers to push through the constitution, the president has succeeded in uniting the disparate opposition groups which include Christians, secularists and liberals. However, it is likely to be his economic policies as much as his religious ones which lose him the confidence of voters appalled by a return to the economic strategy of the Mubarak era. The ending of fuel subsidies will send household energy bills rocketing and the new constitution will peg wages to productivity.

Following the uprising in which a desire for social justice was a major factor, the day-to-day problems of work, housing, health, security and public services are of greater immediate concern for the majority than erosion of personal freedom.

President Mursi will have to introduce an austerity package of spending cuts and tax rises if he is to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. However, the IMF has imposed a condition of political consensus. That is necessary if austerity is to succeed in a fledgling democracy but Egyptians who had been united in overthrowing Mubarak's dictatorship are now so deeply divided it will be an uphill task. Opposition groups have lost the referendum on the constitution but, now that Mr Morsi is severely weakened, they will want to bargain over its most contentious areas. This weekend's vote will do nothing to resolve the crisis in Egypt but a political process must begin if a new general election is to be held, as promised, early next year.

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