Egypt’s Referendum: As Second Vote Nears, National Unity Nowhere in Sight

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MARCO LONGARI / AFP / Getty Images

A street vendor holds a bunch of Egyptian flags for sale while supporters of Egypt's opposition take part in a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Cairo on Dec. 18, 2012

New constitutions, particularly in postrevolutionary societies, ought to be unifying documents. They are supposed to articulate what collective future a nation sees for itself. Halfway through the final step in Egypt’s tortured and toxic constitutional process, no such consensus exists. As the country gets ready for the second round of a national referendum, the proposed constitution seems both likely to get approved and guaranteed to exacerbate, rather than heal, divisions within Egyptian society.

Voters in 10 governorates — including Alexandria and half of Cairo — cast their ballots on Dec. 15; the rest vote this Saturday. The upheaval and tumult preceding this moment — punctuated by authoritarian edicts and mass protests — have deepened animosities and fissures between Egypt’s Islamist government and an increasingly defiant opposition. When President Mohamed Morsi issued his Thanksgiving-night decree granting himself sweeping powers and shielding his government from judicial oversight, it touched off a political earthquake that continues to rumble.

(MORE: The Muslim Brotherhood and the New Egyptian Divide)

Morsi finally rescinded the decree on Dec. 8 in the face of massive protests both in Tahrir Square and across town in the streets around the presidential palace. But in the meantime the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly had succeeded in rushing through approval of the constitution despite a widespread walkout by most secularists, women and all Christians. Morsi quickly set a fast-track deadline for the referendum, giving those campaigning against the current proposed constitution little time to prepare.

The crisis has led to numerous clashes between the warring factions. Angry protesters in multiple cities have trashed offices of both the Brotherhood and its political offshoot, the Freedom and Justice Party. The Brotherhood meanwhile unleashed its cadres on Dec. 5 against the tent city of anti-Morsi protesters that had sprung up outside the palace. The ensuing clashes left at least 10 people dead and spawned multiple allegations — backed by videos — that Brotherhood members had beaten, detained and interrogated opposing protesters.

The first round of voting offered little reason to be encouraged by Egypt’s fledgling democracy. Voter turnout was low — around 31% of those eligible. And there was little of the sense of joy and momentum that characterized previous postrevolutionary votes. Hossam Bahgat, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, captured the mood in a tweet from his native Alexandria: “Unlike last year queuing voters in my station look sad, bruised. None of them cracked a single joke.”

(MORE: Who’s Afraid of a Constitution?)

Early numbers announced by the Brotherhood indicate a 56% yes vote. That’s hardly an overwhelming mandate but the Brotherhood is expected to do better in the second stage, where more rural voters will be polled, and should push that approval number up into the low 60s. Almost nobody expects the constitution to be rejected, but anything below two-thirds popular approval will embolden opposition challenges that the document doesn’t have enough support for true legitimacy.

Despite the low turnout, there were still long lines at many stations because of organizational dysfunction. A large number of Egyptian judges — whom Morsi basically declared war on with his decree — refused to serve their usual role as polling-place monitors. As a result — according to multiple eyewitness reports — thousands of stations went unmonitored or had Ministry of Justice civil servants hastily drafted into the role. International organizations like the Carter Center — which had fielded large monitoring teams in the past — declined to participate citing insufficient time to prepare.

A quick tour of polling stations around Cairo on Dec. 15 yielded a telling commonality. Many of the voters — both in the yes and no camps — were participating in a referendum not so much on the constitution itself, but on Morsi and the Brotherhood’s postrevolutionary dominance. Emad Mortada, a 36-year-old locksmith in Cairo’s working-class neighborhood of Sayeda Zeinab, says he was voting against the constitution, “because I won’t let Morsi become a dictator.” And many of those voting yes seemed to be doing so out of frustration with the current turmoil. “I just want to be done with this. We have to get the wheel of production moving again. We’re facing an economic disaster,” says Azza Teymour, a 26-year-old nurse.

Brotherhood officials know they were executing a power play. The venerable Islamist group — previously hailed for its patience, discipline and caution — has dramatically gone all-in for this document, leveraging tremendous amounts of political capital to get it done. The crisis they instigated transformed Egypt’s fractious, diverse opposition into a unified front. If the anti-Brotherhood forces can capitalize on their new cohesion and momentum, they may make significant inroads in upcoming parliamentary elections slated for next year, pending the constitution’s approval.

(MORE: Big Brothers)

“Never in the Brotherhood’s history dating back to the 1920s has any political force tried to fight it,” says Ziad Akl, a political scientist with the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, explaining that, while the Brotherhood had long waged a subterranean struggle against Egypt’s authoritarian regimes, it was inexperienced in fighting political battles with other civilian actors. “Now there’s real potential. There’s a movement on the rise. There’s something that crosses class lines and ideological lines.”

Akl, a member of the Social Democratic Party, says he has been surprised by both the intensity and demographics of the anti-Morsi protest camp ever since the constitutional decree. The middle class in particular — which largely sat out the Mubarak years — has come out in force, he says. As proof of this new trend, Akl points to the suddenly robust fundraising efforts on behalf of the National Salvation Front (NSF) — the umbrella opposition group led by former U.N. diplomat Mohamed ElBaradei, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and third-place presidential finisher Hamdeen Sabbahi. In just over a week, the NSF raised about $500,000 to fund a massive media campaign encouraging voters to reject the constitution. And the majority of those donations, he says, came not from the wealthy but from individual donors contributing from $400 to $2,000.

“This specific class was never threatened by the fact that you had no dignity in the eyes of the police under Mubarak. They were the ones who could walk into a police station and be treated with dignity,” Akl says. “Now they believe they see a threat to their lifestyle being posed.”

But despite that sense of optimism and momentum, there’s also a mounting sense of desperation for the anti-Brotherhood forces. A significant Brotherhood victory in parliamentary elections would essentially lock down the Egyptian political playing field for the years — with a Brotherhood President, a heavily Islamist legislature and a constitution only they wanted.

Khalil is a Cairo-based journalist and author of Liberation Square: Inside the Egyptian Revolution and the Rebirth of a Nation


No wonder muslims and islamists hate Israel.... Israel is the only true democratic regime in the region. They hate Israel because they hate this idea of a free society


The new MB dictatorship, is not only, for the first time
in late Egyptian history, creating a sectarian religious-fanatic induced
division in Egyptian society that is costing many lives among Egyptian
civilians (highlighted by the massacre, in which tens of civilians were
tortured & killed, done by MB & Salafi militias possessing
weapons that are smuggled across borders from Libya, & against
revolutionaries who were holding a peaceful sit-in beside the
presidential palace, & in which a journalist & one of my
revolutionary friends was murdered), & is also costing many more
Egyptian military officers' lives in Sinai, by turning a blind eye
towards spreading illegal-trafficked weapons in the hands of religious
extremist groups in Sinai who purge on attack operations against the
Egyptian military trying to protect our borders with Palestine &
stabilize the Sinai region.From my personal experience, while I was casting my vote in the
rigged constitution referendum, I
could find only MB members as "referendum monitors" in all the
balloting rooms, & I found them talking with the voters waiting in
their queues.

Opposition &
frustration against this new theocratic regime among Egyptians is so
much wide; demonstrations against MB rule in Tahrir Square, remind me
with its huge numbers of the demonstrations held against Mubarak in the
early days of the revolution. Egyptians have never tolerated religious
fanaticism & sectarian divisions throughout their long history,
& they're definitely determined to get rid of this new parasitical
group holding power now (through rigged presidential elections that were
a product of SCAF & MB deals) that is trying to force such new
fanaticism over the society...

And the revolution continues... It's very rare to find a revolution
in history that succeeds in one or two years; oftentimes, such as in the
French revolution, unbalanced & chaotic several shifts of power
& rule take place (from Mubarak to SCAF to MB...), until finally in
several years time, revolutionaries succeed to gain control over the
regime & begin on a long sustainable process of establishing a true
free democracy...


@SultanAlQassemi @ashrafkhalil @TIMEWorld That's what Israel has always done keep Muslims not being united. Keep them fighting each other!


@SultanAlQassemi @ashrafkhalil @TIMEWorld In Democracy, it's all about accepting the results coming off the polling stations. #Simply


@SultanAlQassemi @ashrafkhalil @TIMEWorld since when national unity was a target in politics! America is as divided & polarized as Egypt.


@seldeeb @TIMEWorld @ashrafkhalil A Constitution "adopted" by less than twenty percent of the voters is illegitimate. Period.


A referendum on a fraudulent Constitution restricted to one group of people in violation of the actual election. Polling places had militant Muslims harassing people and guess who was counting votes? Egypt was not that strict an Islamic country before and many women there didn't wear any veils before. Really, their first election will be their last and Sharia law, with the extermination of minority religions and enslavement of women is just around the corner. The stable and prosperous Egypt of Mubarak, one of the worlds very top tourist draws, is now gone, replaced by a soon to be brutal and primitive theocracy like Saudi Arabia, but without enough oil to keep it afloat. 


If we would like to have democracy in Muslim world starting from Egypt, we must accept and honor the voice of the majority and should not cry to loud when the minority is not getting their wishes fulfilled. Except for human rights and equal rights, minority should not demand too much and try to be disloyal to the nation where they live. Even in America, minorities can only cry and cry to get their wishes fulfilled.


christians in egypt face ILLEGAL intimidation campaign !

so my prediction is that Egypt will be like  another SYRIA !


@AssemMemon mesh 3aref why Ashraf used that , strange, well i am a member after all


@ashrafkhalil Great article but you haven't mentioned any of the serious claims of electoral violations (frm 15th Dec)


@JohnDahodi  minority has the right as majority. the constitution should  be accepted t by minority ,but this is  not the case in Egypt . you do not the pattern of behavior of Muslim brotherhood. they are vicious and violent and their party does not allow to involve in politics during the former presidents in Egypt. look at the violent during these period. woman attacked by  Muslim brotherhood. children are beating to death by Muslim brotherhood gang. think logically