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The Battle for Egypt’s Future

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Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
Mohammed Badie, head of the Muslim Brotherhood, speaking to the press outside a polling station in Cairo, March 19, 2011

To judge by the streets of Cairo on the morning of March 19, it seemed that a good chunk of my city’s 19 million residents were taking part in the constitutional referendum. The roaring old school buses that rattle my windows when they pass in the morning were not to be heard, there were hardly any cars on the usually clogged streets, and the daily flood of people making their way through the dense web of thoroughfares and alleyways was absent. The only signs of traffic or crowds were around the hundreds of designated polling stations. It had been nearly five weeks since protesters in Tahrir Square had brought down President Hosni Mubarak, and Egyptians throughout the country were voting on an all- or-nothing package of nine constitutional amendments. A win for the yes votes promised to lead to parliamentary elections as early as June, returning power to a civilian government following the military’s temporary takeover. If the no votes prevailed, it might start the process of political reform over again, or it might cause the military to pursue a different strategy.

After decades of oppressive rule, in which elections had been pro forma exercises marked by violence and fraud, Egyptians were elated that their ballots would finally count. Many were voting for the first time in their lives. When the results were announced the next day, they seemed unambiguous: 77.2 percent had voted for the amendments—ostensibly an endorsement for reform—and just 22.8 percent had voted against them. The reality, as I had discovered in the days leading up to March 19, was far more complicated. Only 18 million of Egypt’s eligible 45 million voters participated (though, as many have reported, this was the country’s highest turnout on record). In fact, most of the activists who had had a leading part in the revolution dismissed the referendum as cosmetic, when what was needed, they felt, was an entirely new constitution. Moreover, many who voted yes had little sense how these amendments were going to change the country’s political life.

The referendum had been conceived by the Egyptian armed forces as part of its response to the youth protesters, who were pressing for sweeping reforms to the political system that had sustained Mubarak in power. After it formally assumed power on February 11, the day Mubarak stepped down, the military had suspended the 1971 constitution and appointed a constitutional committee to address these demands. Instructed by the military to “get this over with” as soon as possible, the eight members of the committee—among them a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, two professors of law, and a respected judge—had been given a free hand to redraft any of the constitution’s 211 articles and select a referendum date. Key priorities for the protesters were the abolishment of the emergency law, the revision of all articles concerning presidential elections and executive power, and a redrafting of Article Two concerning the state and religion, as well as of other articles concerning the rights of citizens.

Despite pressure by activists for a complete overhaul of the constitution, however, the commission’s recommendations—arrived at seemingly in a matter of days—were far narrower: on February 26, the military announced only nine proposed amendments, to be voted on three weeks later. From the start it was clear where the emphasis lay. While leaving many of the protesters’ demands—such as the electoral process—unaddressed, the proposed changes revealed some of the recurring concerns of the military, such as the fear of “foreign” interference in the country’s affairs.

The most significant of the amendments would limit presidents to two four-year terms, allow independent candidates to campaign, and bar from office anyone who holds a foreign passport or, oddly, has a “foreign” spouse (Mubarak’s wife, and President Anwar Sadat’s wife before her, both had British mothers). It also would establish new legislative powers, providing for a subsequent revision of the constitution by a committee chosen by the new parliament.

Although military leaders had met privately with activists before the announcement of the referendum, protest leaders were quick to denounce the amendments as inadequate. “To us, the regime was a failed one, which means that its constitution too is failed,” the activist Esraa Abdel Fattah told me. Esraa, who had been jailed under Mubarak’s regime for organizing a nationwide protest on April 6, 2008, in solidarity with striking laborers, was one of the planners of the January 25 protest that started the revolution. She had been meeting with the military and the interim cabinet on a regular basis, and was among those who proposed appointing Essam Sharaf, a civil engineer and former transport minister who had participated in the Tahrir uprising, as interim prime minster, which the military leadership did following the resignation of old-regime holdover Ahmed Shafiq on March 3.

Esraa was also one of the handful of activists and policymakers who were invited to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Cairo on March 15. The weekend before, I found Esraa in her office at the Egyptian Democratic Academy, an organization that uses social media to promote democracy and human rights, flipping through her recently recovered state security file. She told me that Clinton

has to understand the proposed amendments are completely inadequate. We are not ready for elections. We need a transitional three-person presidential council, comprised of two civilian leaders and an army one. We need at least a year to raise awareness and prepare the people for elections. Political awareness and engagement is currently lacking. If the United States wants to help, there needs to be a balance between military aid and that to civil society. We need help with this coming phase. Talk is not enough.

After the meeting, Esraa called me. “Hillary responded positively to what I had to say,” she said. “Although she didn’t have firm responses, she took general criticism well.”

In the weeks leading up to the referendum, there had been a few further moments of victory for the revolution. On March 5, crowds of activists overran state security bureaus across the country, including the state security headquarters in Cairo. For many, the Amn al-Dawla, or State Security Investigation Service, had been one of the darkest forces behind the Mubarak regime—known for its random arrests and the torture of activists, and for keeping surveillance files on millions of people—and its sacking seemed to consummate the defeat of the old order.

Yet at the same time, the protest movement had fragmented. There were widespread reports of robberies and lawlessness; tensions between Muslims and Copts had reignited; the army had released Islamist political prisoners, including those accused of assassinating Sadat in 1981; and stories of detentions and torture were continuing to surface. At a women’s rights demonstration on March 8, thugs stormed the crowd in an attack reminiscent of the pro-Mubarak violence against the Tahrir uprising a month earlier. The police, meanwhile, were still largely absent from the streets, while the army and its tanks seemed to be just standing by. Amid this growing sense of unease, many who had taken part in the uprising thought the referendum was hasty and ill-conceived, and activists like Esraa drew on all their political connections to try to pressure the military to postpone it.

Meanwhile, the debate on how to vote in the referendum intensified on social network sites and TV talk shows. Even the popular youth radio channel 104.2 Nile FM—whose young hosts spin popular Western tunes and invite guests to talk about dating, love, and movies—was discussing the constitution. Yes and no camps swiftly took shape. Activists and the members of the upper-middle class were calling for no; they wanted a new constitution and more time to raise political awareness among the nation’s 80 million people. Those who felt the referendum was taking place too soon—a group of reformists that included presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei—hinged their argument on readiness. None of the opposition coalitions and movements had secured the resources or organization to mobilize large numbers in an effective way, and their supporters worried that a yes victory would result in a parliament divided between the Muslim Brotherhood and members of Mubarak’s old patronage network. Moreover, such a parliament would then be free to redraft the constitution to its liking. “Bad news,” one activist told me. “We’ll all be dead.”

But the limited Cairo- and Alexandria-based campaigns of the no advocates had little chance of winning over the broader public. The Muslim Brotherhood, the ultra-conservative Salafis, and groups affiliated with the former party of Mubarak, the National Democratic Party (NDP), were endorsing the amendments and targeting their efforts at the working classes—laborers and farmers. The Muslim Brotherhood—the largest and most organized movement apart, perhaps, from the remaining political network of the former regime itself—initially distributed flyers urging the yes vote as a religious obligation. But activists and the media quickly got wind of this strategy—stirring up long-standing suspicions about an underlying Brotherhood agenda to turn Egypt into an Islamist state—and the Brotherhood adopted the more palatable slogan “Yes is a vote for stability.” The day before the referendum, around noon, I could hear from my desk the distant sound of an imam promoting yes-for-stability in his Friday sermon; there were reports that the same was taking place at mosques across the country.

When Saturday came, there was only one place to vote in my neighborhood, a public school, and by the time the polls opened at 8 AM, the lines of voters—parallel ones for men and women—ran down a narrow side street, past the post office and an art gallery, around a corner by a flower shop, and all the way down to the Bahraini and Algerian embassies a mile away. My mother, who is in her sixties and had never voted, woke up at 6 AM, eager to make it to the voting station early. By 8:05 AM, tweets were already coming in from those who had cast the first ballots, and from others standing by as election monitors. “I went to vote in Zamalek,” tweeted the telecom tycoon Naguib Sawiris, who had been an active mediator between the youth and the regime during the revolt. “At 8 o clock the line was endless. My body shiverred of happiness.” Many seemed hopeful, if not for the immediate results, than certainly for the future.

After an hour, I decided to head to a polling station near parliament, a few minutes from Tahrir Square, where Amr Moussa—the departing secretary-general of the Arab League who had taken an active part in the protests and was considered a leading candidate for president—had earlier voted no. (Moussa said that the proposed amendments were not in line with the democratic ambitions of the Egyptian people, arguing that a temporary constitution should be created instead to provide for presidential elections followed by a more full-scale, independent redrafting of the constitution in the coming year.) When I got there, I saw Cairo’s governor, Abdel Azim Wazeer, jump the line with a large entourage and cast his ballot. One man watching, furious, screamed, “Some things never change,” and several hundred voters erupted into the familiar chant “Irhal” (Depart). “What does he know about order and standing in lines,” a woman beside me said. “He’s part of the old regime. We can’t expect anything better from him.”

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