Egyptians to face the first test of a free vote

Dina Ezzat , Friday 18 Mar 2011

Egyptians head to polling stations around the country to voice their opinion in the referendum on constitutional amendments, marking an almost unprecedented undertaking in what is expected to be a free and fair voting process


"Read this paper please before you decide to vote; read it carefully; read the front and back; here it is," said a young man around 25-years old as he handed out a double-printed ‘Q&A’ sheet on the referendum to an older man at one of Al-Hussein's cafés on Thursday evening.

The paper that was handed out to every single client of the café – even those who said they were not Egyptians – was a copy of a statement entitled "For the benefit of a neighbour or a doorman" which carried the signature of "the Public Campaign Against Constitutional Amendments".

It offered, in very simple and not-so-classical Arabic, the ABC’s to the whole story of the constitution, its amendments and possible repercussions. It also answered the most hotly debated questions such as "Why do they tell us that without these amendments the nation will come to a stand-still?" and "Why should we trust the next president to amend the constitution fully?"

The same leaflet underlined the consequences and possible outcomes of the constitutional amendments, especially in relation to the planned parliamentary elections in June – three months from now.

A short while later, a bearded, pleasant-looking young man entered the same café.

 "As-Salamu Alaykum (Peace be upon you); Inshallah on Saturday we are going to say ‘Yes’ to the referendum so that we may proceed ahead; we cannot keep the army in control of the country; we need to initiate the democratic process that we have always dreamt of; if we wait for longer than we risk allowing the return of dictatorship under a different guise; We will say ‘Yes’ inshallah," preached the young man.

"I attended the morning mass today and after we prayed [the priest] told us we needed to vote against the amendments because early elections could result in an Islamic state," said Darine, a 40-year-old Christian resident of Nasr City.

Meanwhile, Facebook, under the banner “No-Yes”, was full of comments and counter-comments among those who want people to vote “Yes”, those who favour a “No” vote and those who are as yet undecided.

So, is democracy in play? Political analyst Diaa Rachwan answers, "What lies ahead of us is a free voting process rather than a full democratic process.”

According to Rachwan, Egypt, since the 1952 revolution, has twice sampled the taste of a fairly free vote: once in 1976, under president Anwar Sadat and another in 2005 under recently ousted president Hosni Mubarak.

"Of course, the voting process each time did not match the Western standards of democracy."

Tomorrow, Rachwan is worried that the democratic legitimacy behind the notion of free voting will be ultimately hindered by a crucial handicap: an insufficient volume of knowledge and understanding of the material put to the referendum.

"People should have been given more time to really discuss and fully understand the amendments that they are called to vote for or against. The few days allotted between the announcement of the amendments and the day of the referendum do not offer enough time for people to properly grasp the issue," said Rachwan.

Accordingly, Rachwan is concerned that the atmosphere at each polling station could have a significant effect on some. "It would depend a great deal on who some voters first see as they step into the ballot station tomorrow morning; if it is someone who could argue the case for ‘Yes’ they would vote ‘Yes’ and if it is the other way round the vote would be ‘No’," he suggested.

Rachwan is equally concerned over the growing polarisation between both camps.

Rachwan is planning on voting “No” for the simple fact that "those who made the revolution have not been given enough time to put forward prominent candidates in the parliamentary elections that are to follow the approval of the amendements; to put forward candidates you need much more time to prepare than the 3 months or so allows."

"Ethically, it is wrong that the benefits of the revolution should not go to those who actually made the revolution. Politically, we are again talking about the same duality of Islamists versus the previously ruling National Democratic Party; this is not the political scene that the revolution fought for," said Rachwan.

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