Egypt’s Divisive Vote
Egyptians are deeply polarized on the draft constitution, but most seek stability
The cogs of the Egyptian media machine are in motion once again as we approach yet another referendum on the constitution. When out and about in Cairo, it is hard not to notice the posters plastered everywhere urging the public to vote. Radio and television channels are buzzing with it, encouraging Egyptians to go to the polls and vote ‘yes’ on January 14–15, 2014. But much has changed since last year’s referendum. This time, the public’s reaction to the proposed charter shows greater rifts within society and the increasing polarization of the Egyptian population.
Mina Thabet, a leading member of the Coptic group Maspero Youth Union and the Egyptian Coalition for Minorities (ECM), says that last year it was all about religion, but today it is security and patriotism. Thabet explains that the media now links the 2013 constitution to the Egyptian Army and their transitional roadmap. With this association in mind, many Egyptians are likely to say ‘yes’ to the proposed draft constitution in a show of support for their national army—highly respected by the majority—and the June 30 protests that led to President Mursi’s ouster. In Thabet’s view, many will participate and vote ‘yes’ because they are against the Brotherhood, not because they feel engaged with the process.
It is clear that the “general consensus” that Amr Moussa, head of the constitution-drafting panel, claimed was reached doesn’t apply to everyone, particularly Muslim Brotherhood supporters. An Al-Azhar spokeswoman for the anti-coup student movement, who asked to be identified by her nickname, “Sarah Yousef,” for security reasons, thinks the new draft doesn’t represent her, or indeed other Egyptians. Yousef fully rejects this year’s constitution; she doesn’t even intend to read it. She cannot accept a document that is the result of what is, to her and others like her, the military overthrow of the democratically elected president.
For those who do bother to read the constitution and choose to not vote purely based on partisan leanings, there is still much to disagree on. Particular points of contention include the rights of minorities and the role of the military in civilian life. Although Thabet is pleased that the ECM delegation managed to influence the draft to support minority rights, such as the criminalization of discrimination, punishment of hate crime, and ban on forced displacement, he disapproves of several provisions, such as Article 1 which qualifies the identity of Egypt as exclusively “Arab” and “Islamic.”
Nubian activist Naglaa Abo El-Magd, who is also a member of ECM, embraces Article 236, which relates to the right of Nubians to return to their lands of origin. However, she disagrees with a new article that recognizes the cultural diversity of Egypt but doesn’t mention Nubians. As a woman she is also pleased with an article that requires the state protect women from violence, the new article also explicitly states that women are equal to men.
Dostour Party member Walid Gabriel strongly objects to the provision of military trials for civilians and the need for approval from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) for the appointment of the Minister of Defense. In contrast, Mohamed Nabawi, who co-founded the anti-Mursi rebel movement Tamarod, says he already considers the draft constitution a “success,” and that he’s comfortable with the article on military trials and trusts people won’t mind further empowerment of the army.
Nabawi is convinced that most Egyptians will look at the charter as a whole and vote in favor of it, despite some reservations about certain provisions. This is true of Magd, who believes it is impossible to get a real consensus on a far from perfect constitution, but she still welcomes the draft, despite its imperfections, as a stepping stone to a better future.
While a large chunk of society, particularly the poor and uneducated, is easily influenced by what they hear in the media, many others are motivated to vote for the new draft because they want stability. It is telling that security and stability came first, at 28 percent, in the listing of priorities for Egypt’s future in an opinion poll conducted by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera). Stability was followed by justice and equality, at 14 percent, and further down the list came improving living conditions and creating job opportunities, improving education, safeguarding human rights and freedoms, and providing healthcare. These will be the things on many Egyptian’s minds as they go to the polling stations in January. Without hesitation, Gabriel stated that a very high number of people would vote ‘yes’ for the sake of the country’s stability.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.