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Mahalla gears up to vote on contentious constitution

Egypt's industrial heartland sees relative calm after three tumultuous weeks in run-up to vote on divisive post-uprising national charter

Yassin Gaber , Saturday 15 Dec 2012
Mahalla protest
Protesters in Mahalla call for a No vote ahead of Saturday's referendum on Egypt's draft constitution (Photo: Ayman Farag)

Following Friday prayers, tens of opposition demonstrators occupy Shoan Square, the flashpoint protest ground in Mahalla Al-Kubra, an industrial city in Egypt's Nile Delta. The day before the first round of Egypt's national referendum on a highly contentious and divisive draft constitution, the historically dissident industrial city is the calmest it has been since violent clashes erupted on 27 November and since the highly-publicised declaration of independence last Friday.

The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, have thrown their entire political weight behind a "yes" vote in Saturday’s referendum. They are unfazed by the opposition in Mahalla.

"The no more than hundred protesters that you currently see in [Shoan] Square -- many of whom are spectators -- are the core that come out to protest most days," says Mamdouh El-Muneer, the FJP’s media spokesperson in the Gharbiya Governorate.

As the interview proceeds, one of the two young boys watching an American cartoon in the reception pops his head in curiously but is quickly told off. The FJP office is business as usual, its members showing no sign that the following day poses a major test for both it and post-uprising Egypt.

In the streets of Mahalla, the tens from Shoan Square have begun a march around the city, calling on residents to head to the polls on Saturday and vote against the "illegitimate" constitution.

"Come down and say 'no,' you have rights," they chant, as they weave through the city’s streets.

According to Mohamed Anwar, a media student and member of the Revolution Youth Coalition in Mahalla, "There is a wide response from the people. They are convinced that the Brotherhood have lied to them for the thousandth time and that they must say 'no' to the Brotherhood’s dominance, 'no' to Morsi’s rule, 'no' to his referendum and illegitimate constitution and they must say ‘no’ to the injustices that will be enacted under this constitution."

The FJP’s El-Muneer believes these are the words of what he refers to as the "third front" of the opposition: a group led by the "traitorous" Mohamed ElBaradei, who calls on international intervention, and others who would use violence and thuggery to bolster their camp’s unrepresentative voice.

"They distribute leaflets incorrectly explaining the different articles of the constitution. We, however, hand out full copies of the constitution and encourage people to check it against the version published on the official website," El-Muneer states.

Comparing articles in the draft constitution with an opposition leaflet produced by El-Muneer as proof of a misinformation campaign, this Ahram Online reporter saw statements highlighting the negative consequences of certain contentious articles and little evidence that the opposition was "passing around lies."

Kamal El-Fayoumi, a veteran trade unionist from the Misr Spinning and Weaving, the largest textile factory in Egypt, describes attending a Salafist Nour Party symposium in neighbouring Tanta in which the party highlighted the constitution’s defence of workers’ rights.

He disagrees strongly with many of Salafist group’s points, arguing -- as many of the opposition fliers argue -- that Article 14, which ties wages to production and not prices, is a recipe for further abuse of Egypt’s workers. The flier, printed by the Nour Party’s secretary-general in Gharbiya, does not highlight this point, but speaks of bridging the gap between income groups and ensuring a "dignified life."

What’s more, El-Fayoumi argues, the draft text maintains articles from the 1971 constitution that seek to limit the role of the worker in management.

The veteran trade unionist believes that if there is no vote rigging, residents of the industrial city will overwhelmingly vote "no" in opposition to the draft constitution’s promotion of privatisation.

The FJP has also been organising awareness campaigns in the form of symposiums, conferences and political salons with the hope that citizens can "make up their own minds."

El-Muneer later admits that the FJP is indeed pushing voters to say "yes" as the constitution would protect Egypt’s identity and the rights of its minorities by ensuring that sharia (Islamic law) is the principal source of legislation.

"The FJP constantly seeks to diminish our numbers, but last week we saw between six and seven thousand gather at the city council to support the symbolic declaration of independence and this week, we have distributed more than 50,000 leaflets defending our 'no' stance and are currently busy organising ourselves into several committees to oversee Saturday’s referendum," says Alaa Bahlaan, a leading Constitution Party member in Mahalla as well as a member of the city’s Revolution Salvation Front -- a coalition of opposition forces closely resembling the National Salvation Front.

"Ninety per cent of the street in Mahalla will say 'no' so long as there is no foul play. But I foresee issues Saturday in the form of vote rigging by the Brotherhood; this will result in violence," Bahlaan predicts.

The Revolutionary Salvation Front, which consists of the Mahalla branches of the Constitution Party, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Revolutionary Socialists and the Socialist Popular Alliance Party among others, will be running a monitoring centre on Saturday near Shoan Square. They hope their presence will ensure a transparent poll.

A day ahead of Egypt’s most critical vote yet, opposition members in Mahalla remain firm in their revolutionary resolve while those in power appear comfortable in their political calculations.

The constitution is a step forward, El-Muneer argues, stressing, "We need to switch to stable institutions; investments must pick back up."

El-Fayoumi’s words strike a different chord: "The revolution will continue until the realisation of our demands; until we feel dignity and freedom; until the rule of the National Democratic Party and [ousted president] Mubarak doesn’t continue under Morsi." 

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