A divisive piece of paper won’t keep Egypt afloat

On Saturday, Egyptians were required to vote “yes” or “no” to the draft constitution. Out of the 51 million eligible to cast their ballots only 18 million did so during the crucial first phase that polled ten governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria.

The vote had to be staggered due to a lack of judges willing to monitor the proceedings; the last phase will take place on Saturday, Dec. 22, when people living in largely rural areas will have their chance to decide.

Official results, thus far, show that 56 percent of voters back the controversial document that could seal the nation’s future for decades to come. There are just over 2 million votes placing the yes camp ahead in a country with a population of 85 million. Fair is fair, you might think. Better a nationwide ballot than nationals with competing visions of how they want Egypt to look like fighting it out on the streets. But when the facts come under scrutiny, the vote may not be as legitimate as the government seeks to portray it.

In the first place, the draft constitution was ratified by a constituent assembly solely made up of Islamists as moderate, secularist and Coptic members had walked out weeks before complaining that their concerns were not being properly considered by the Islamist majority.

Secondly, although the assembly had been given two months to finish the job when President Muhammad Mursi issued edicts expanding his powers (now rescinded), it chose to rush through the draft’s ratification during a 16-hour-long all-night session ensuring moderates were left out of the loop.

Third, voters were given just two weeks to digest a 63-page-long document with 236 articles, written in legalize, which even professionals have struggled to understand. I’ve yet to speak to an Egyptian who’s actually read it all the way through. A university professor and one of the pro-MB judges responsible for monitoring a polling station in Alexandria both disclosed to me that they found the wording difficult.

So where does that leave the bulk of the population when 28 percent is illiterate and the sole qualification of most others is a high school certificate? If they can’t comprehend it, they certainly can’t mull its ramifications down the road vis-à-vis human rights, women’s rights, personal freedoms and the safeguarding of democracy’s principles, loopholes that have been fiercely criticized by both Egyptian and foreign human rights organizations.

The newly formed National Salvation Front, led by former presidential candidates Amr Moussa, Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, was right to request a postponement of the referendum citing the need to give people time to consider the draft and the inadvisability of holding a ballot when the nation is gripped by high emotion and violent protest. But that request was turned down by the government.

The opposition’s initial reaction was to boycott the exercise. On Wednesday, just two days before the referendum, opposition supporters were urged to vote “no.” Whereas the government had weeks to campaign for a yes-vote sending representatives to talk to various sectors of society such as blue-collar workers and the fellaheen to explain how certain articles within the constitution could benefit their interests, the National Front had a mere 48 hours to get its message out.

Most crucially, just a day before the ballot on Friday, several imams defied a government order not to involve in the political process by pressing worshippers to back the constitution, including a sheikh in Alexandria whose interference resulted in street clashes injuring 19. During a press conference at his home, he said “his sons” phoned to say they were on their way with automatic weapons to protect him, but he told them to hold fire, saying they should wait for his instructions.

Cairo’s media city, where many private television stations are based, was threatened by a large gathering of Islamists gearing-up to attack it for expounding anti-government opinions. Earlier, a threatening crowd had prevented judges from entering the Supreme Constitution Court where they were set to thrash out the draft’s legality.

Lastly, according to various media outlets, including the Arabic daily Masry Al-Youm, the legitimacy of Saturday’s ballot is in question because unstamped ballots were discovered in numerous polling stations. Others closed their doors hours early, leaving queues deprived of their right to vote. In some the procedure was so slow that would-be voters got tired of waiting and left. A few were unable to mark the fingers of those who had cast their ballots because they lacked the necessary ink.

There have been over a thousand claims of fake judges; one carrying an MB membership card was investigated by the police. At least two ‘judges’ were asked to show their identity cards and refused saying they were not bound to produce them. In the Misr Gedida’s Ibn Sina School, a fight ensued when a judge declined to prove his identity. In one case, a 23-year-old woman was presiding in a chair reserved for a judge. In some cases polling centers operated without the presence of any judicial monitor. An elderly woman voting in Alexandria says she was advised by a judge to vote “yes.” In the town of Minyet El-Nasr within the Daqahliyeh governorate, ballot boxes were found in a supermarket. At one center in the Cairo suburb of Shubra and another in Medinat Nasr, Coptic women say they were intimidated by gangs outside to go home. Some voters were shocked to discover that their dead relatives had somehow managed to cast their votes from on high, when they glimpsed their names and ID numbers on lists. It should be mentioned that most of the judges who had thwarted the influential Judges Club to take part were either sympathetic to the MB or affiliated with its Freedom and Justice Party.

The Judges Club is in receipt of 420 complains of electoral foul play. The National Council for Human Rights has received 437 complaints, including attempts to sway votes outside and inside, according to a report that also cited people being permitted to vote together in one booth, bribes, pre-marked ballots, as well as access being denied to some voters. At some polling stations, lists of authorized voters were absent.

The National Salvation Front asserts “large scale fraud” and staged protests Tuesday in Cairo. The English-language paper Egypt Independent contends that “major human rights and civil society organizations” have “demanded a repeat of the first round of voting, citing violations such as the lack of full judicial supervision of the vote, Freedom and Justice Party members congregating inside polling stations and Christians being barred from voting at some polling stations.” The credibility of people who counted the ballots is also suspect. A taxi driver in Alexandria, who drove a judge to a polling station because he feared parking his own car in the vicinity, said he was called in after midnight to help tally the votes.

Surely people who suffered decades under dictatorship and lost loved ones in their fight for freedom, deserve more. There’s only one place for a paper causing bloodshed, disunity, trickery, and which does not protect every strata of Egyptian society. I’ll leave you to guess where.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at heardonthegrapevines@yahoo.co.uk.

One Response to A divisive piece of paper won’t keep Egypt afloat

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