The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Some thoughts on Egypt's referendum

In Maadi, a #Jan25 youth activists greets the voters with sweets.

I went out for a few hours this morning and toured various areas south of Cairo — Maadi, Helwan and villages beyond it — to see how things were taking place at polling stations. Whether in urban areas or in rural ones, I have to say I've never seen an Egyptian election as cleanly run and where a mood of enthusiastic civism dominated. Whether people voted yes or no, there was a calm dialogue, confidence and pride in being able to vote freely for the first time. This alone is a major achievement considering that only three or four months ago, Egypt held one of the most fraudulent election in its history. Even if there are reports of irregularities elsewhere, Egyptians can take pride in their newfound civism and take the debate over how to vote in the referendum as evidence of a healthy national debate.

Were I Egyptian, I'm not sure how I would vote. Most of my friends are voting no, and there are good reasons to do so. The constitutional committee was appointed hastily and its composition was problematic, some of the revised amendments — notably on nationality requirements — stink of chauvinism, and the army has been clumsy in advocating for a yes vote and intimidating the no campaign. Yet, at the same time, I can understand the yes vote: a desire to move quickly so that the army returns to the barracks, political stability is more quickly restored and that the mandate for transition is clear (this is basically what the referendum is really about — granting a mandate to the army's transition blueprint).  Although I think an entirely new constitution would be desirable, the no campaign has not explained who would write it or who would elect them. Moreover, the current idea for the transition is for the next president and parliament to be in charge of writing a new constitution, which seems like a more democratic process: an elected parliament will be more representative, after all, than an appointed committee to draft a constitution. I'm not sure I buy the argument that moving too fast benefits the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, either — this seems undemocratic, an election is an election.

In the countryside, Hossam voted no.In this sense there a whiff of elitism about the no campaign. Many I speak to deride poorer people, which tend to want to vote yes (largely because of concern over stability and the economy) although I did meet a "no" voter who said he had been pro-Mubarak and didn't even want to hear about the constitution until the security and economic situation is resolved. Many in the middle class, and especially upper middle class, appear to want to vote no. People in the countryside generally lean yes. Some of the no vote is rooted in a "fear of the masses" that sees them as easily fooled, bribed, or intimidated into voting yes, and liable to re-elect the NDP or the MB in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. But there are many exceptions to all these generalizations, of course, and among the low-education, low-income people I spoke to I heard both simplistic and sophisticated arguments for both cases — as well as disarming honesty from a young yes voter who just said he didn't really understand what he was voting for.

There is one aspect of the yes campaign that troubles me, beyond some of the army's recent actions. Former NDP but especially Muslim Brotherhood forces on the local level have been vigorously putting out a pro-yes message. In some places, people felt intimidated by the groups the MB mobilized. In Mansoura, a Salafi sheikh said that voting no was against God's will. I find that kind of populism repulsive, but I'm not sure it's illegal. Unfortunately that's part of the package of democracy. More worrying is what happened to Mohamed ElBaradei when he went to vote:

CAIRO—Hundreds of Islamists hurled stones and shoes at Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular contender for Egypt's presidency, as he went to cast his ballot in Cairo in a referendum on Saturday, an AFP reporter said.

"We don't want you," they shouted, throwing stones, shoes and water at the former UN nuclear watchdog chief as he tried to vote, five weeks after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in the wake of mass protests.

"He lives in the United States and wants to rule us, it's out of the question," one of them said.

"We don't want an American agent," said another.

ElBaradei, who was hit in the back by a stone, was forced to retreat to his car and leave.

That's disgusting, and these people should be arrested and prosecuted as any group attacking another is. They disgrace their country on an otherwise great day. And the political leadership — and that includes Muslim Brothers — should take responsibility for creating the political climate in which such an attack takes place. Salafists in particular present one of the most potent threats to Egypt's budding democracy — their intolerance and brutal tactics are the equivalent of the far-right in Europe or the Islamist movements in Pakistan. They — these former allies of the Mubarak regime — should be fought whenever possible. But it should be remembered that this was not the attitude prevalent in other places, where a spirit of tolerance and civic duty appeared to be the norm.

Update: It's not 100% clear whether the crowd that attacked ElBaradei could be labeled as "Salafist" — some video evidence suggests it's an ordinary mix of people. Just want to make sure Salafists don't get the whole blame for this — although I stand by my feeling that this minority current of Egyptian society represents a nasty, virulent and anti-democratic ideology.