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Morsi finally rescinded the decree on Dec. 8 in the face of massive protests both in Tahrir Square and across town in the streets around the presidential palace.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.

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“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