So, what did the Egyptians really vote for?

Dina Samak , Sunday 16 Dec 2012

With turn out at just 33 pct in the first phase of Egypt's constitutional referendum, Ahram Online's Dina Samak says Egypt's political elite have lost the support of the man on the street

So, what did the Egyptians really vote for?
Women chat as they wait outside a polling center to vote during a referendum on Egypt's new constitution in Cairo December 15, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

The first day of voting in Egypt’s constitutional referendum is over. But what did Egyptians vote for and will they get what they want?

Om Rasha is a cook with three children and wears the full Islamic face veil. She lives in a village on the outskirts Suez and says has voted for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists in every election since 2011, because “they are men of God and will fear God and obey His orders and be good to the poor.”

However, the life of Om Rasha, and the 40 per cent of Egyptian women who, like her, are the main breadwinners in families living below the poverty line, has not improved since the revolution and there are few signs that it will in the near future.

Om Rasha says she does not know who she will vote for in the constitutional poll, which takes place in Suez on 22 December, but she will not vote for the Brotherhood because “they will raise prices for the poor."

She adds: “[The Brotherhood] will not support me financially except if I am a widow or divorced, and I am neither. I am a poor woman who can hardly make ends meet.”

However, Om Rasha also has little time for the opposition groups campaigning for a 'No' vote.

“The other men (the leaders of the National Salvation Front, the main bloc opposing the constitution) has not said how they will help me pay my bills. I don’t understand what they say or how they can govern if Morsi leaves and I think they will fight with each other,” she says.

Mixed sentiments could be heard in Maadi, an upper middle class district of Cairo.  In the old market fruits and vegetable sellers from Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta were waiting for customers who were actually queuing for hours at polling stations.

The well-dressed people queuing to vote made it clear they were against the constitution and an Islamist state governed by the "arrogant" Brotherhood which is "little different to Hosni Mubarak's National Democratic Party."

Others said it was time for the country to move forward and the Brotherhood should be given one last chance to get the ‘wheels of production’ turning.

In Maadi's old market, Abdel Hameed, a fruit seller from Sohag in his early fifties, did not even know if he was supposed to vote in the first or second phase of the referendum.

“This whole thing is not for us,” he says. “I just want things to get better and there is no hope of that.”

Voting took place in Sohag on Saturday, so the voice of Abdel Hameed, like Om Rasha, will not influence the referendum.

“If we vote for the Brotherhood they are going to raise prices and the opposition will keep on protesting. But if we vote for the opposition, the government will keep on telling us to wait until we have institutions that can deliver our demands,” says Abdel Hameed, who takes his young daughter to the hospital every week for dialysis. “I don’t have health insurance and my whole day is spent earning enough money to live and trying to find people to help me get the state to cover the expenses of my daughter’s treatment.”

The first phase of the constitutional referendum saw turnout of just 33 per cent, which means 67 per cent of people simply did not vote.

The apathy many people showed towards the referendum cannot be ignored in the context of the ongoing battle between the ruling Islamists and the civil opposition. If the turnout in the second phase of the referendum is as low as in the first it will highlight the fact that fewer people are willing to vote.

In December 2011, turnout for the parliamentary election was over 60 per cent. A few months later, less than 50 per cent of voters cast ballots in the presidential election. The declining level of participation is a clear message to the country's political leaders if they really want to see it.

In the weeks before the referendum the opposition persuaded many members of the couch party (the majority of Egyptians who do not participate in political activity) to join them in protesting against the draft constitution and the president's constitutional declaration. Many of those who protested outside the presidential palace or in Tahrir Square were taking part in political action for the first time.

Conversely, Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, called on the opposition to respect the ballot box as the only way to measure public opinion on the constitution.

However, the majority of Egyptians, in the first phase of the referendum at least, answered the hard question—they decided not to vote.

The referendum begged the question: Who do you believe will improve your lives? The Brotherhood on the one hand, or supporting the the opposition that calls for "the fulfillment of the demands of the revolution" on the other.

In the end, the people clearly rejected both camps of the Egyptian elite by choosing not to vote.

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