Overwhelming 'Yes' vote but low turn-out expected as voters back stability over revolution
14 Jan 2014
The army said it was a vote for the future, but Egypt’s weary citizens returned to the ballot box on Tuesday seemingly determined to turn the clock back.
For three years, the country has seen permanent revolution under the guise of a democratic transition. Now, its third constitutional referendum since the overthrow of ex-President Hosni Mubarak may represent a return to military rule under the guise of a ballot box.
The country’s divisions were on full show. Some polling stations were already empty by half-way through the morning, thanks to a boycott by the Muslim Brotherhood and election fatigue. At others, in districts where pro-army banners hung from lamp-posts, queues snaked round the corner.
The previous two referendums were intended to enshrine the 2011 Tahrir Square revolution, but for those who did dip their fingers in the electoral ink, Tuesday was more about returning the generals to power.
The only question was which general’s name was held in the highest esteem.
“I was against the revolution and always supported Mubarak,” said Safa Mohammed, an accountant voting in north Cairo. “We don’t want any more instability,” she added. “We want security - enough of all this destruction.”
This year’s constitution follows the army’s removal in July of the Brotherhood president, Mohammed Morsi, and the immediate scrapping of the document he pushed through 13 months ago.
The new version, negotiated by a 50-strong committee that was broad-based apart from the absence of Brotherhood representatives, removes much of the religious language of Mr Morsi.
Human rights groups praise it for guaranteeing equal rights and banning torture, but add that it strengthens the powers of the military and removes accountability from the judiciary. This makes it unclear how its more laudable goals are going to be guaranteed in a state where police violence is routine.
For most of those who turned out, however, the details were irrelevant. More important was that the familiar certainties of old should replace three years of endless protest, economic disruption, and conflict between the Brotherhood and its military, secular and Christian opponents about the very nature of Egypt.
“So if you don’t like five things about the constitution and vote against it because of that, what happens tomorrow?” said Essam Abdulhakim, a retired engineer. “You won’t eat bread tomorrow, that’s what. You will be going into the unknown.”
It is not that Mr Mubarak has suddenly become popular. It is more that the generals who are now calling the shots represent a “discipline”, as several voters put it, that other parts of Egyptian society lack.
The Brotherhood was also supposed to be disciplined, but that idea was undermined by the chaos of Mr Morsi’s year in office.
Many of the military’s supporters hark back further than Mr Mubarak, to the full-blown dictatorships of Gamal Abdul Nasser, who died in 1970, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, murdered in 1981.
“I want the Egypt of before 1970,” said Nasrallah Shukrallah, 54, a teacher. He said that was when Egyptian society began to be infected with the “desert culture” represented by Islamists like the Brotherhood, which Nasser persecuted.
Nasser’s portrait has made a come-back in recent months, often alongside pictures of Egypt’s new military strongman, Gen Abdulfattah al-Sisi, the defence minister, who engineered the coup against Mr Morsi.
Gen Sisi has dropped hints that he would take a “Yes” vote as a mandate to stand for president himself, a return to the status quo. Mr Morsi was modern Egypt’s sole non-military leader.
A “Yes” vote is in fact a foregone conclusion. Campaigning for “No” was all but banned, with activists who tried to do so arrested and beaten under anti-terror laws. “Yes” posters festooned the streets, with pictures of Gen Sisi hung from prominent buildings and waved by passing children.
Supporters sang and danced at polling stations. Brotherhood demonstrators were chased away.
Three people were killed when police opened fire in the southern Egyptian town of Sohag, an Islamist stronghold, and eight others around the country.
Turn-out was hard to estimate. The previous two referendums only tallied around 40 and 30 per cent of eligible voters. An even lower figure now would indicate success for the boycott led by the Brotherhood, which has condemned the referendum as whitewashing a dictatorship that has blood on its hands after the killing of hundreds of pro-Morsi demonstrators in the summer.
Many secular youth also saw the return of the military and the police as overturning the 2011 revolution.
“I’m not taking part - not after all the bloodshed,” said Mohmen Mustafa, 25. “Our revolution has achieved nothing at all. But there will be another revolution, for sure.”
Not far from where he was speaking, a bomb exploded before polls opened outside Cairo’s North Giza court-house, an example of the instability that many Egyptians fear and Gen Sisi’s supporters think they are voting against.
A Sinai-based Islamist militant group, Ansar Beit al-Maqdis, has claimed responsibility for a string of attacks, including in Cairo, since Mr Morsi was overthrown.
The authorities have used this to tar the Brotherhood as terrorists, though the group insists it supports only peaceful means.
No-one was injured, however. A small protest of mainly women, holding posters of Gen Sisi, gathered shortly afterwards, shouting anti-Brotherhood slogans.
*Photo courtesy of Associated Press