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Egypt’s Constitutional Referendum

First Published on Vice January 16th 2014 

Inside one of Egypt’s polling stations. Photos by Amanda Mustard

For the past two days, Egyptians have been taking to the polls to officially pass judgment on thelatest iteration of the country’s constitution. As with most “yes” or “no” questions, there are only two outcomes. A “yes” majority would force interim President Adly Mansour to call for elections (either parliamentary or presidential) within a period of 30 to 90 days from the new constitution coming into effect. But, incredibly, there are no guiding procedures in the event of a “no” majority.

That might seem presumptuous, but, thankfully for the interim government, they have history on their side—there’s never been a “no” majority for any constitutional referendum in Egypt’s modern history.

The new constitution is widely perceived as an improvement on the 2012 version, which was drafted under ousted President Mohamed Morsi. But it’s not really all that different from its predecessor. Instead of starting from scratch, as was originally expected, amendments were made to contentious provisions in a long, drawn out process that finally ended with Mansour’s declaration of the referendum on December 12 of last year.

Despite the increased clarity about discrimination and violence against women, as well as a lengthened list of socio-economic rights, the draft still contains a number of articles that have worried analysts—like the one that could potentially weaken labor rights and freedoms—and maintains provisions that protect the continued use of military tribunals for civilians. Nevertheless, some are absolutely certain that the contents of the constitution are exactly what Egypt needs.

“I’ve read the entire constitution!” one man exclaimed proudly outside a polling station in the Cairo district of Shubra. “This is the constitution for Egypt. God bless Egypt and God bless [General Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi! I’ve written my favorite bits from the constitution here,” he smiled, showing off a piece of paper covered in writing.

The bomb-damaged front of the courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood

The opposition Anti Coup Alliance immediately declared their intentions to boycott the vote, worried that pushing for a “no” would somehow legitimize the incumbent powers and their new draft constitution. However, nothing resembling a boycott movement managed to work its way into the public consciousness. Instead, the “Vote Yes” campaign snapped up all the attention and advertising space.

By the first day of the vote, almost every lamppost along Cairo’s major bridges was adorned with a “Yes to the constitution!” poster. And giant billboards tenuously connect a “yes” vote to the 2011 revolution and the June 30 uprising that led to the fall of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. The message was clear: this isn’t just a vote for a constitution, this is a vote for the revolution and the martyrs.

The first day got off to a bad start, when an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba neighborhood, some two hours before the polling stations opened on Tuesday morning.  Although no one was killed in the blast, it prompted an increased security presence—the worry being that there were similar acts planned for throughout this referendum period.

Despite the violent start, voter turnout for the first day was relatively high, with Egypt’s minister of administrative development claiming that 28 percent of the country’s registered voters had cast their ballot that day alone. However, scattered fighting in various governorates turned deadly for some—the Interior Ministry put the death toll at 12 at the close of the first day’s voting, and 250 were arrested.

Crowds outside a Cairo polling station with a poster of General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi

On state TV, multiple feeds from polling stations all over Egypt showed long lines, with everyone smiling or waiting patiently.

Outside a school in the affluent neighborhood of Zamalek, a mother and her two teenagers strolled out of the polling station. Their fingers still wet with the voting ink, they responded to a question about how they had cast their votes. “Of course we all voted yes!” exclaimed the mother, Dina, apparently taken aback that there was even a possibility someone might vote no.

“This constitution is better than the one before. I didn’t vote in the referendum last year, but I knew it was my duty this time. It really is much, much better,” explained her son, Abdel Aziz, before she interjected: “There is justice here,” she said. “There is a future!” Her daughter Noor nodded in approval to what her brother and mother were saying. “We want everything to get better and this is the first step to that. No more fighting, a better economy, some stability,” she said.

“Stability” is a promise that seems to come back around during every voting period, and after three years of turmoil, death, coups and changing governments, the offer is more tantalizing now than ever. “The most important thing for Egypt right now is stability,” explained off-duty officer Mohamed Abdelmaher outside an Imbaba polling station. “Political stability, economic stability, social stability. Stability is absolutely the cure for all of Egypt’s problems.”

He held his young daughter’s hand tightly as he talked about the future of his country, repeatedly bringing up the need for stability and security. “I just voted ‘yes’ in the hope that there’s no more of that,” he said, pointing to the damaged facade of the courthouse. “God willing this is what the country needs.”

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Tensions Over Egypt’s Referendum Results

First published in the New Internationalist on December 24, 2012

On the evening of 22 December 2012, Egypt watched the primary results begin to trickle in after the divisive voting process of its constitutional referendum. Early figures indicate the ‘yes’ vote,  in support of the new charter, received around 64 per cent of the final result.  Only 3 of Egypt’s 27 governorates came out as ‘no’ victories, one of which was Cairo.

The referendum had been staggered over two consecutive Saturdays after a large number of judges refused to supervise the voting process in protest at President Mohamed Morsi’s 22 November Constitutional Decrees. They claimed Morsi’s self designated ‘immunity’ to them was an affront to the independence of their judicial branch of power.

Egypt’s provisional constitution mandates that members of the judiciary must oversee referendums and elections. The lack of judicial administration was a major worry for the president as it threatened any result’s legitimacy, but eventually 8,800 judges agreed to supervise.

Nonetheless, there have been accusations of voting improprieties during both rounds of the referendum: from vote rigging, to delays in opening polling stations, to absent judges.

The umbrella opposition group, the National Salvation Front (NSF), claimed to have witnessed ‘unprecedented rigging’ , including 750 violations across all 10 governorates in the first round. The National Council for Human Rights (NCHR) referred some 350 complaints from the first round to the Supreme Electoral Commission.

Despite the questions raised, the result itself will come as little surprise to most.  The opposition forces have long been divided on how to approach this referendum and perhaps it was this discord that cost them.

The ideologically inclined were pushing for a boycott on what they see as a wholly illegitimate process, whilst the more pragmatic implored a vote no. Even the NSF were unable to decide where they stood until just three days before the first round of the referendum, when they finally called on the people of Egypt to vote no.

Early reports on turnout indicate around 32 to34 per cent of the electorate, the numbers are incredibly low. To put this into perspective, the UK’s lethargic ‘Alternative Vote’ referendum in 2011 managed to get 42 per cent of the electorate to take part.

Political ennui and fatigue are sure to have contributed somewhat to Egypt’s poor turnout, but once you consider the ubiquity of the constitution in local media and the heated discussions that always seem to arise once the topic is brought up, it seems implausible to put too much weight on apathy.

The problem is that, by definition, boycotts are impossible to tally up, thus the extent to which this may have affected the final results are unknowable, especially given that thre were debates within the opposition about strategies right up until the final day’s voting.

An Egyptian man who wished to remain anonymous stated, ‘If you boycotted this referendum, then don’t come crying to us [the ‘no’ voters] about the state of this country… What do you achieve by boycotting? Nothing! You had to vote no to confront Morsi’. The man has been camping in Tahrir Square for the past three weeks and proudly states he will stay there and protest ‘until I die’ if necessary.

For now, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi have the opportunity to capitalize on this victory.  They need to desperately turn their attention to softening the rhetoric, halting the ridiculous talk of conspiratorial coups and in so doing, hopefully slow the expanding disparity between the two sides.

Morsi recently postponed the implementation of his economic reforms in order to run a ‘social dialogue’ but with the NSF having refused every invitation to a national dialogue so far, it seems like the divisions of the past month, between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the secular and liberal opposition, is likely to continue.

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