Egyptian voters size up Saturday's inconclusive constitution poll

Dina Ezzat , Monday 17 Dec 2012

In wake of first-phase vote that revealed unexpectedly high levels of public opposition to Egypt's draft constitution, weary voters size up implications for Egypt

Women queue outside a polling center to vote, 15 December (Photo: Bassem El-Zohgby)

"I was against the 25 January Revolution and I voted for [Mubarak-era prime minister] Ahmed Shafiq in the first and second rounds of Egypt's presidential elections; but I voted 'yes' for the draft constitution in Saturday's poll," said Karim, a 20-something Cairo taxi driver.

Failing to have found a job since he graduated from a faculty of commerce over two years ago, Karim "hated the revolution" because, he felt, it would mean that "there would be no jobs for me."

During the post-revolution transitional phase, Karim hated "all political figures and members of the Supreme Military Council, because the country was in such bad shape." Having taken up taxi-driving "for lack of better options," Karim expressed anger that he was not making enough money. He blamed those in power and "those struggling for power" for Egypt's lamentable status-quo.

Worries of political instability and poor job opportunities were what prompted Karim's fear of what the revolution might bring; the same fear made him vote for Shafiq last summer because he hoped "things would return to normal."

When Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was announced Egypt's next president, Karim decided that "maybe it was a call from Allah for us to return to Islam." He stopped playing football and listening to pop music, switching instead to Quranic recitations.

When the draft constitution was put before a popular referendum, Karim voted 'yes' without having read the charter or having listened to any of the recent debates over the document. "I thought I should vote 'yes' to give the president a chance to have his way and fix things,” he said.

Many of the voters who spoke to Ahram Online in East Cairo on Saturday were not particularly informed regarding the text of the charter. In Heliopolis, Nasr City and Ain Shams, voters mostly said they would cast 'no' votes. The reasons offered by those who voted 'no' were mostly prompted by the impressions they got from the media debate on the issue.

The same went for those who voted 'yes.' The only difference between the two groups was the type of newspaper and news channel they resorted to for information and analysis.

Indeed, voters queuing outside polling stations talked more about this summer's hotly-contested presidential elections, President Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood and the 25 January Revolution – rather than the text of the new draft constitution.

"No matter what is written in the draft, I'm going to vote 'yes' because I trust President Morsi; he's a good man, pious and modest. Even if the constitution gives him many authorities, as the liberals and Copts say, I'm sure he will not abuse them," said Raniyah from Nasr City, a government employee in her late 30s.

In the first round of this summer's presidential elections, she says she voted for former Muslim Brotherhood member Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh.

"I wanted an Islamist and I thought the (then-ruling) military council would not allow Morsi to win," she said. "It was a pleasant surprise when he came in first place in round one, and I certainly voted for him in the second round. I have supported him in all his decisions ever since."

Standing in line to vote on Saturday, Raniyah – a moderately veiled lady – harshly criticised Abul-Fotouh for having opposed Morsi's recent political decisions. She was particularly critical of Abul-Fotouh for having called on followers to vote against the draft constitution due to what he said was the proposed charter's failure to guarantee social justice and democracy.

The very mention of Abul-Fotouh's name on the women's line of this polling station – and on other lines around East Cairo – prompted endless debate about the "true colours" of the moderate-Islamist leader who came in fourth place in the presidential contest's first round.

"His recent positions proved what we always suspected: that he was only pretending not to be with the Brotherhood. He is, in fact, with them – otherwise he would have joined the National Salvation Front that is opposed to the dictatorial decisions of Morsi and this Muslim Brotherhood-Salafist-oriented draft constitution," said Nadia, a pharmacist in her late 50s. A resident of Heliopolis, this colourfully veiled lady spent a good part of her time waiting in line examining the former presidential candidates.

"By any standard, Morsi was the worst of them all; how can any of us forget that he was not even the Brotherhood's first-choice candidate?" Nadia said.

Morsi, then the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, joined the presidential race at the eleventh hour as an alternative to first-choice candidate Khairat El-Shater, who was disqualified from the race for legal reasons.

Ultimately, however, Morsi ran and won, "To my great dismay," Nadia says.

"I never wanted a Muslim Brotherhood member to be Egypt's first post-Mubarak president," she added. The long years that Brotherhood members spent in jail under the former regime, she asserts, "must have left them feeling vindictive more than anything else, which has made them unfit to rule fairly."

"I voted for (Nasserist candidate) Hamdeen Sabbahi and abstained from voting in the second round. Today, as I confront the current disaster – a constitution that will make Morsi a worse dictator than Mubarak – I'm convinced that we landed in this situation because we failed to agree on a single candidate to take on the Muslim Brotherhood," she added.

For Nadia, Shafiq – who was ultimately defeated by Morsi by a slim margin in the second round – was not an option, since his close association with the ousted regime "would have effectively undone the gains of the revolution."

Sabbahi, who came in third in the first round, was perceived by Nadia as a favoured choice because he spoke of "social justice" more than any other candidate. In retrospect, Nadia believes that non-Islamist forces should have rallied behind popular Mubarak-era foreign minister and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

"Moussa knew how the country was run; he would have presided over an easy transition because, as a diplomat, he would have been able to accommodate the views and fears of those associated with the former regime as well as those who wanted change," Nadia argued.

Regrets over Moussa's loss were clearly heard at several polling stations and among citizens who chose not to vote, including Nader, a mechanic who works in the poorer side of Cairo's Heliopolis district. "I voted for Moussa in the first round," he said. "I thought he was a wise man with plenty of experience; every job requires certain levels of experience."

Like other Moussa supporters, Nader was hopeful that Moussa would at least make it through to the first round. Having been "dismayed" by the first-round result, Nader concluded that "elections were not clean" and decided to boycott both the second round of the presidential vote and Saturday's constitutional poll.

"Ultimately, the Muslim Brotherhood will do whatever it wants; it's pointless to say 'yes' or 'no'," he said.

For Kadri, a bus conductor, the issue has become irrelevant.

"Of course I didn't vote," he said as he collected tickets. "Does anyone care about our views? Did anyone ask us if we agreed to raise prices [on certain consumer goods]? They will do whatever they want, irrespective of what we think – just like those who came before them," he said.

Kadri was particularly incensed by a recently announced scheme to increase sales taxes on certain goods and services. "Raise the price of one thing in this country and everything becomes a lot more expensive. Prices are all I care about," he said.

At first, Kadri was sympathetic to last year's uprising because he thought it would mean better living conditions for him and his family. "Then nothing happened and the country entered a phase of seemingly endless demonstrations," he said.

Kadri argues that a "council" consisting of all the presidential candidates, along with members of the once-ruling Supreme Military Council, should have been tasked with running the country and improving the economy.

"But they were all selfish; everyone wanted to be a hero, when in fact none was a hero," he said. "The army people wanted to keep the country for themselves and each of the candidates wanted to be president."

"Now we have to go through all this: prices will rise and life will become more difficult and we'll end up longing for the Mubarak era," Kadri concluded, before informing passengers about a change to the buses' scheduled route "due to these damned demonstrations before the presidential palace and traffic jams caused by today's constitutional poll."

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