The results of the first round of the referendum on the constitution illustrated well the deep political divide within post-revolutionary Egypt.
Over the last two years, clear polarisation has occurred between Egyptians in support of the Islamist current and those opposing it, with President Mohamed Morsi assuming power with a mere 51.7 per cent of the vote.
Now, with around 44 per cent of Egyptians having rejected in the first round the national charter drafted by an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, it is unclear how the opposition will react should the constitution be passed by a similar margin.
“No country in the world would accept a constitution pass with only 50 per cent of the population in agreement," exclaimed George Ishak, member of the National Salvation Front (NSF) and founding member of the Dostor (Constitution) Party, founded by leading opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei.
"In France, when only 54 per cent of the population agreed on the constitution it remained in dispute until 85 per cent consented," he added.
Khaled Dawoud, NSF spokesperson, echoed similar sentiments, saying that, "Two thirds of the country needs to agree on the constitution before it can be considered passed.”
Apart from the low 'Yes' vote percentage in the first round, Islamists are under pressure on the events that led to violent protests at the Cairo presidential palace.
The force of the protests following President Morsi’s contentious 22 November decree and the results of the first round of the referendum for many demonstrate the decline in popularity of Islamist parties, which accrued more than 70 per cent votes in last year’s parliamentary elections.
The Egyptian judiciary’s reaction both towards the 22 November decree and the draft constitution, experts believe, is further indicative of the decline in popularity, and authority, of the Islamist project and government. A majority of judges refused to oversee the referendum in protest at the 22 November decree, while members of the higher council of the Egyptian State Council's Judges' Club said Monday they would not supervise the second round of the referendum due to violations committed in the first.
Markedly, the State Council was one of the few judicial authorities that had previously agreed to monitor the referendum.
In addition, with the second round scheduled for 22 December, opposition marches continue, called upon by prominent political opposition groups, including the Revolutionary Socialists, the Strong Egypt Party, the 6 April Youth Movement and the Socialist Popular Alliance to denounce what they term "the Brotherhood's constitution."
Nonetheless, experts on both sides of the political divide expect the referendum to pass.
“I am sure the Freedom and Justice Party will make the referendum pass no matter what!” asserted Bas El-Adel, president and founder of the liberal Nile Party, established five months ago.
On the Islamist side, there is confidence. “I think we will gain the majority of votes, around 60 per cent,” stated Yousri Hamas, El-Nour Party spokesman.
Attention, therefore, is turning to what happens after the referedum. with parliamentary elections due in just two months.
“We are living day-by-day; we have not reached the stage of thinking about what will happen if the referendum is passed. We will keep opposing the policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the constitution. We refuse to give up!” said Dawoud. When pressed to disclose the opposition’s intentions regarding parliamentary elections, Dawoud said only that participation is assured.
“We will most certainly participate in the upcoming parliamentary elections! The opposition currents are now one, united under one umbrella,” declared Ishak.
Divided on dialogue
The need for national dialogue — ostensibly to reinstate a degree of consensus in the political domain, deemed necesssary for stability — is another dividing issue in current Egyptian politics.
“We don’t think national dialogue is a serious process with Morsi, as he has only listened to his own people and has done what he wants with the declaration and the referendum,” stated Dawoud.
Many opposition members like Ishak boldly state that if Morsi doesn’t stop the referendum no negotiation will be possible. Zakaria believes that dialogue with "the real opposition" (by which she means figures independent from the former regime) will take place only when the referendum is passed. “We never refuse dialogue; it is always the opposition that refuses!” she declared.
Meanwhile, the president’s legitimacy continues to hang in the balance. Former President Hosni Mubarak was given a life sentence for failing to prevent the deaths of protesters in January-February 2011. Many opposition forces now call for the same charges to be brought against Morsi for his failure to prevent the deaths that ensued from violent confrontations at the presidential palace in Heliopolis.
“Morsi’s presidency is illegitimate; he has made many promises and broke them!” asserted Ishak, detailing Morsi’s meeting with members of the NSF prior to the 22 November decree, during which opposition currents urged him to reach for consensus, which he ignored.
Other members of the opposition, like Dawoud, maintain the opposition is not questioning Morsi's legitimacy as president, but rather the constitution and the process involved in its drafting.
A Brotherhood state
The principal qualms raised by the opposition concerning the draft constitution involve sweeping presidential versus parliamentary powers, the relation between the president and the judiciary, the role of Sharia vis-a-vis minority rights and social freedoms.
Opposition groups underline that the current draft was largely written by the Muslim Brotherhood for the Brotherhood and is not representative of all Egyptians. When questioned about such issues, Islamist forces maintain that the new constitution by far outshines the 1971 Constitution, in operation under Mubarak.
Hamad emphasised parliament’s ability to dismiss the president with a two-thirds majority as illustrative of the greater focus on popular power in the present constitution compared to its precedessor. Dina Zakaria, media spokesperson for the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), assures that presidential powers are appropriately balanced in the new constitution, discounting as rumour the widely expressed fear of dictatorship held by opposition camps.
Minority rights, according to Hamad, are well protected in the new constitution, though he admits that, “certain religious minorities which are not recognised in the Quran — those that do not belong to the Muslim, Christian or Jewish faith, such as the Bahai — do not have rights in the constitution,” adding that the presence of such minorities are not welcome in Egypt.
Islamist camps accuse the opposition of spreading false propaganda about the constitution, including printing fake versions of the constitution, adding or denying the existence of certain articles, and also incorrectly explaining many articles.
“We have advised people to read the constitution; once they realise it is not horrible like the media and opposition claim then most will vote 'Yes',” maintains Zakaria.
But opposition forces charge Islamists with similar deceit, involving vote buying, false propaganda, incorrect information about the constitution and false promises.
The FJP spokesperson also criticised the opposition for questioning the constitutional drafting process, emphasising that the re-writing of the 1971 Constitution was one of the revolution’s demands. Attacking the Constituent Assembly is uncalled for, according to Zakaria, since its members were selected in a fair process. Zakaria claims that despite the resignation of Copts, seculars and independents from the drafting committee, their inputs were incorporated in the new constitution.
“None of the inputs of former members of the Constituent Assembly were deleted!” Zakaria insists.
With the second phase of the referendum set to take place in 17 governorates 22 December, including Giza, which has the second biggest number of voters after Cairo, Egyptians apprehensively await the ultimate result.
Opposition parties remain steadfast that whatever happens, the fight to bring down the constitution will continue.
“In 1913, we had a similar constitution that took five years to bring down. We will fight until the same occurs today!” said El-Adel defiantly.
Such attitudes are fiercely criticised by Islamists who say that the choice of the people cannot be overlooked. So far, this response is not deterring opposition calls to hit the streets, especially if the referendum is passed.