Egypt’s referendum divides Egyptians

A conversation with a couple of voters near a polling station in greater Cairo during the constitutional referendum began amicably enough: “Do you want tomatoes from the bottom of the crate, or from the top?” remarked one man, referring metaphorically to democracy, and the draft constitution that was up for a yes or no vote. He voted “no,” convinced the document, having been written by a largely Islamist assembly, did little to guarantee civil rights in post-revolution Egypt. Some of the small group laughed, since Egyptians love a good metaphor.

We were standing in the center of a densely populated neighborhood called Saft al-Laban, a place that occupies the uneasy ground between intense urbanization and rural traditions. Thirty years ago Saft al-Laban was farmland but it is now the home of around a half million mostly low-income Egyptians. On the main street, which is boxed in by a massive highway overpass, water buffalo and horse-carts mingle with swarms of exhaust-spewing tuk-tuks and pick-up trucks, many of them laden with vegetables for the Cairo market. The area’s Islamist leanings are evident, not least in the predominance of fully veiled women and posters of President Mohammad Mursi.

My conversation with voters attracted the attention of two men: Magdy Dakrur, who introduced himself as the head of the Popular Committee, a group of around 150 mostly young male volunteers formed after the 2011 uprising to help secure the neighborhood and supervise elections, and a Dr. Mohammad, who claimed to be a poll monitor and member of Egypt’s National Council for Human Rights, an organization with several leaders belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was soon apparent that neither of these poll supervisors was impartial regarding the referendum’s outcome. As the man who voted “no” attempted to express his views, he was challenged with increasing belligerence by a gathering crowd. “What’s wrong with this constitution?” they demanded, without giving him a chance to respond. “Anyway, the ‘no’ voters will lose because they’re wrong,” some said. “If the majority wants Shariah (Islamic Law) then that’s that. It’s called democracy,” said Mr. Dakrur.

The referendum, which took place with less than two weeks advance notice, was staggered over two consecutive Saturdays, in contravention of the present constitution, which calls for it to take place nationwide on a single day. The polling was held in two phases since many of Egypt’s judges, who normally supervise elections, refused to do so, in protest against recent presidential proclamations usurping judiciary powers and overriding constitutional court rulings. The ruling Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed legitimate objections to the referendum and the constitution’s content by saying, “Let the ballot box decide.”

Standing at the center of by now around 30 men all speaking at once, I shouted for them to give the citizen who voted “no” a chance to voice his views. “What right do you have to be here?” a bearded man demanded. Saying I was a journalist didn’t help, indeed the crowd grew slightly hostile. Several men, including Mr. Dakrur, told me I had better leave. The dissenting voter also gave up, frustrated and probably like me, a little shaken.

Many Egyptian voters have conflated support for the Constitution with religious duty, thanks to slogans like “vote yes for paradise” issuing from some mosques and TV proselytizers who have suggested that those who vote against the Islamist-backed Constitution are immoral and apostate.

Despite the importance of the referendum, voter turnout was low, around 32 percent. Some boycotted believing the election would be rigged in favor of the “yes” vote supported by Mursi and his backers, others owing to uncertainty regarding its content. Critics claim the document is weak on the rights of women, children and religious minorities, that it allows for the trial of civilians in military courts and that its nebulous language paves the way for the greater exercise of Islamic law. Conversely, some conservative Islamists boycotted the referendum because the draft Constitution did not instate Shariah more firmly.

Leaving the men, I was surrounded by a group of totally veiled women who asked why some journalists and TV presenters warned of the Constitution’s religious bias. “What’s wrong with being Muslim?” one asked. Clearly, the two weeks allowed for public dialogue was insufficient for most voters to gain a clear perspective of the meaning and consequences of the Constitution. For many, the debate was reduced to a “with us or against us” rhetoric centered largely on religion. State spokesmen frequently described dissenters as the “elite,” fueling divisions between better- educated and underprivileged Egyptians.

The referendum results now indicate that the voting public approved the draft by what state media called “a comfortable majority” of 64 percent. Yet the mood in Egypt’s capital is far from comfortable at the prospect of a new Constitution, which in an ideal world would have united the nation in the name of economic, political and social renewal. The referendum results will be contested on several legal grounds, beginning with its authorship and including inadequate poll supervision and over a thousand documented instances of voting irregularities. Opposition demonstrations are expected.

However, if my experience at the Saft al-Laban polling station is any indication, the vehemence of those who see the constitution as upholding their religious identity will push them to shout dissenters, albeit fellow Muslims, down.

Egypt’s constitutional referendum suggests that democracy is not just about majority rule, but the majority’s willingness or ability to discriminate between the tomatoes at the top of the crate and the ones at the bottom.

Maria Golia is an American author living in downtown Cairo. You can visit her website at She wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 28, 2012, on page 7.




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