Roving thoughts and provocations

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Egypt’s First Vote

Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images
People lining up to vote in the constitutional referendum, 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 all over 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 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. 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 Muslim Brother, 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 “foreign” lineage). It also would establish new legislative powers, providing for a subsequent revision of the constitution by a committee chosen by the new parliament.

Yasmine El Rashidi
An empty ballot box being taken to a downtown voting station, Cairo, March 18

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 nation-wide 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 interim cabinet on a regular basis, and was among those who proposed appointing Essam Sharaf, a civil engineer 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 policy-makers who were invited to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to Cairo on March 15. The weekend before, I found her 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 victory moments 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 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 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.”

Yasmine El Rashidi
A man supporting a Yes vote (left) argues with a man advocating No, Cairo, March 19

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 organised 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 it 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 shivered 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 by 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.”

The Muslim Brotherhood had been campaigning hard all week, and by 10 AM, I was getting reports that their followers were congregating outside voting stations around the country to press for Yes votes. They had already distributed thousands of bags of sugar and other staple goods off the back of trucks—a strategy they use throughout the year to win supporters—and some of their members were reportedly preventing ‘No’ people from entering polling stations. I was curious about this, and along with a friend—the artist and photographer Lara Baladi—hailed a cab and headed to Shubra, a largely working-class and Coptic area. Our taxi driver, a man in his forties, said he was voting Yes. “This won’t do anymore. We need a parliament. We need a president. We need life to get back to normal and for business to pick up again.”

I had spent much time with Coptic protesters downtown following the destruction of a church by thugs on March 5, and expected to find many of them in Shubra, voting No for fear of an Islamist takeover. But they were no where to be seen and we were met instead by Muslim Brothers—bearded men and women covered in black from head to toe, with only small eye-slits revealing slivers of skin.

Lara Baladi
Voters in Shubra

At the first polling station we entered, we were followed by guards—familiar State Security types—and the police, soldiers, and even the judges overseeing the ballots did little to calm things when dozens of voters started screaming at us to get out. As we left, we tried to speak to some people at the exit, asking them “why Yes?” Their arguments were all the same: “stability.”

Around the corner, at another Shubra polling station, we were met with even more hostility. A Muslim Brother manning the door took our IDs and walked away. When we asked for them back, saying we would leave, he refused, gripping them harder, refusing to explain why. When we vigorously protested, the crowd started yelling that we were “No people.” We finally grabbed our IDs from the man’s hand and quickly left.

In the week leading up to the referendum, pro-democracy activists and supporters had accused the military of cutting a power-sharing deal with the Brotherhood to preserve its hold on power. The armed forces had not explicitly taken a position on the amendments, but they sent text messages telling people that participation in the referendum was a vote for “democracy.” And while they left Brotherhood members to freely campaign for Yes, they harassed youth activists who were calling on people to reject the proposed amendments, arresting several the day before the vote.

Yasmine El Rashidi
Egyptian soldiers keeping close watch on a “No” campaign rally, Cairo, March 18

Still, the former MP Mona Makram Ebeid—who served on the council designated to negotiate between the youth and the military—was skeptical about claims of military collusion with the Islamists. “They are keen to get back to the barracks,” she told me when I saw her at a downtown polling station the morning of the referendum. Former army generals, pointing to the ominous state of the region and the threat of instability along Egypt’s border with Libya, had also told me that the military needed to return to its normal job. Even the widely disliked Army Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi seemed reluctant to meddle for long in Egypt’s daily affairs. (A December 2009 diplomatic cable disclosed by Wikileaks, described Tantawi as saying “that any country where the military became engaged in ‘internal affairs’ was ‘doomed to have lots of problems.’”)

More plausibly, military leaders view the Brotherhood as the devil they know; even in the event of a large Islamist representation in parliament, they would understand what they were getting and how to deal with it. A parliament of young revolutionaries, on the other hand, could threaten the army’s position. “You have to understand,” the activist Basem had told me earlier, “The military is not a radical institution—why would they support us? They only responded to our demands when we were a critical mass.” At the time, that mass included the Brotherhood, the working class, and laborers.

I visited several other ballot stations on Saturday, and nowhere else did I experience the hostility we found in Shubra. But a report had come in that thugs had prevented ElBaradei from entering a polling station, and a picture was circulating that showed his car window smashed, splintered glass covering the seats. Contacts in the Coptic community were also reporting that Copts were being harassed into voting Yes by polling station staff, or simply prevented from voting at all. A Coptic priest in the southern town of Naga Hammadi—where gunmen killed eight Copts as they were exiting Church following Christmas prayers last year—said Christian voters were being obstructed. In some towns with large Coptic communities, there were reports that election officials, or their minders in the military and police, had apparently left voting stations closed.

Despite such reports, however, the referendum was perhaps the most legitimate poll the country has seen. “They were clean,” the law professor Amr Shalakany told Al-Jazeera. “But they weren’t fair.” Amr was right—few people I had spoken to in the streets had a firm grasp of what a Yes or No vote really meant. Yes, most people thought, meant a quick solution to the country’s economic woes. Even the design of the ballot seemed to encourage the notion: the Yes circle was a bright, promising green color; the No circle was black.

Lara Baladi
A referendum ballot, marked with a No vote (left circle), Cairo, March 19

By Sunday morning, preliminary returns suggested that 65 percent of the estimated 20 million voters had voted Yes. Among those who cast votes were the former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and many of the former president’s much hated men, including former Speaker of Parliament Fathy Sorour. According to reports, the presidential family voted too—in the seaside resort of Sharm El Sheikh. Later, when the official results came in with even more in the Yes tally, reactions varied. In some neighborhoods people celebrated with fireworks. In others, they were simply celebrating the right to vote democratically. It was mainly on Facebook and Twitter that disgruntled voices were airing grievances: about reports of fraud, about the “dirty tricks” of the Islamists, and about the “absolute insanity” of the military. “This is crazy,” one wrote. “We’re going to have another NDP government, this time filled with Islamists too.”

By Monday, the Brotherhood had already begun preparing its parliamentary campaign, and a video of hip-looking young Brothers—each featured answering the question “why are you with the Brotherhood?”—was circulating on Facebook. A prominent Salafi Sheikh announced that religion had won the Yes vote, saying people had effectively declared “Yes to religion.” In response, activists and friends started making an urgent appeal to regroup their supporters and ponder their next steps. A widely-circulated post by the blogger Sandmonkey advised, “Start organizing yourselves into an offline grassroots movement, Zenga Zenga style; … Start reaching out to Imams and Priests now; … Know thy enemy.”

With parliamentary elections around the corner—the military leadership is now saying they will take place no later than September—many political hopefuls are talking about forming parties, though just how easy that will be remains unclear. Even the Brotherhood doesn’t yet know if their previously announced “Freedom and Justice” party will be legalized, since the constitutional amendments left untouched controversial Article 5, which bars any political activity “with a religious frame of reference.” Still, they can campaign as independents regardless of their party’s status, and they already have the support of a considerable swath of Egyptian society. Esraa told me last week that she had planned to campaign for a parliament seat herself, but now, with just a couple of months to prepare and much other work to be done, it’s looking less likely.

Elsewhere, Mubarak loyalists are busy planning their next steps too—few doubt that many familiar faces will emerge when parliamentary campaigning gets underway. There are already rumours that some of Mubarak’s closest associates will run themselves, and while there isn’t much apparent popular support for the NDP, the party has pockets of strength and many loyalists are businessmen with huge stakes in the national economy. Even some of those now in jail continue to employ tens of thousands of people in factories and industries, and could wield outsize influence in a future election.

No one seems to know what a parliament dominated by former NDP members and Islamists might mean, what will become of the youth activists and their movement for change, what will happen to sometime leading figures in the uprising like Amr Moussa and the Google executive Wael Ghonim, or whether—as some fear—the army will be provoked in the coming months to crackdown on more radical calls for change. The battle for Egypt, and the increasingly divergent groups taking part in it, will continue for months, and probably years, to come. The very possibility of such a battle even taking place, though, is more than anyone—as recently as three months ago—could have imagined.

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