Egypt’s Tense Constitutional Referendum

Egyptians voted yesterday on a new constitution, with initial results pointing to a victory for Islamists. But opponents are decrying its unfairness. Mike Giglio and Vivian Salama report. 

12.16.12 9:45 AM ET

Shimaa Khalil was fired up as she waited in line to vote on Saturday in the downtown Cairo neighborhood of al-Mounira. She’d been on the front lines of the fight against former dictator Hosni Mubarak, and then against the military council that took his place. She’d even landed in the hospital during the violent street clashes of the past year. Now, she considered challenging the constitution the next step in her revolutionary fight. “I came here to vote ‘no,’” she said. “I will stay in the streets every day if the constitution passes. We will start the revolution again.”

This is the kind of fire the opposition hopes to maintain in order to continue its struggle if Egypt’s controversial constitution becomes law. The national referendum—which started yesterday and will finish on December 22—is widely expected to pass, which will put the country’s newly reenergized opposition in an uphill battle to start undoing the clauses they dispute. Among them: ones that make sharia the basis for state law, threaten women’s rights and give wide-ranging powers to the president.

But in contrast to Khalil’s demeanor, the mood of her fellow voters in al-Mounira was one of quiet reserve. It was a marked departure from the opposition’s high energy over the past few weeks, as they have protested en masse against President Mohamed Morsi’s decision (later rescinded) to grant himself unchecked powers in order to push the constitution through assembly and on to the referendum. The opposition has said that the drafting was driven by Islamist interests and finalized in undemocratic fashion. (Most of the non-Islamist members walked out during the drafting process.) Morsi and his allies, meanwhile, have said the constitution is desperately needed to bring stability to the country.

On Saturday, there was no big show of opposition forces as voters went to the polls; after all the hand-wringing and threats of a boycott, the vote simply marched ahead.

At the polling station in al-Mounira, members of the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist group behind Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party—lingered outside the schoolhouse used for the poll, saying they were on call to protect the vote from any disturbances, even though the army and police were also stationed throughout the city to ensure order. Among the crowd, the ‘yes’ votes were more easy to find than the ‘no’s’—and not just because of the Muslim Brotherhood’s presence. Many people seemed to just want the drama of the past few weeks to end. “I hope the constitution will be implemented and everything will settle down,” said factory worker Ahmed Abdul Karim. “God willing.”

Nearby, Yehia Abdul Mohsin, a 25-year-old software engineer explained, “Most of the people who say ‘no,’ if you ask them why they say ‘no,’ they don’t have an answer.” But standing just behind him in line, Khaled Hamdi, a 30-year-old human resources specialist, cited problematic clauses over issues such as minimum wage and education as reasons he was voting ‘no.’ “I have concerns about several parts of it,” he said.

“I’m here to vote ‘no’ to the constitution because Morsi is a liar,” said Mohsin Abdullah, a 63-year-old retired teacher, who cited Morsi’s decree and the pushing-through of the constitution as worrisome tactics that were “not democratic.”

Elsewhere in Cairo, Abdou Mohammed, 36, a convenience-store owner in Moqattam, a section of Cairo perched atop a mountain, looked left and right before expressing his views on the vote for fear of repercussions in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold. “I’m voting ‘no,’” he said. “But I don’t like to tell people because I will get harassed. It’s the same system like Mubarak but different faces.”

As people stood in lines for as long as two and three hours, the wear and tear of politics was evident. In the short time since Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians have grown well-acquainted with the protocols for free-and-fair elections—mobile-phone providers even send individual alerts to citizens detailing exact polling addresses and voter registration numbers. But on Saturday, unlike at previous elections, voters seldom joked, laughed, or even smiled—and tensions were noticeable everywhere.

“I’m so afraid that they will forge the vote,” said Georgette Messiha, a Christian housewife from Shoubra. “Then everything done in the past two years will have gone to waste.”

In Shoubra, where a significant Christian population resides, women pushed and shoved to make their way to the polling station door, only to get turned around by the electoral monitors. Women in face veils showed their national identification cards, but the absence of female monitors made it impossible to match every individual to her ID. In Nasr City, meanwhile, a harmless scuffle sprung up between two drivers outside one of the schools, providing some needed entertainment for the frustrated, bored men in line, who erupted in cheers.

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In other enclaves, though, disagreements over the constitution took on the civil tone of coffee-shop discussions. Sitting with friends on the porch outside Halawa, a bustling cafe down the street from the al-Mounira polling station, one man—who declined to give his name because he works in a government ministry—said that the country should just slow down. “Why do I say ‘no’? Because of the procedure,” he said. “Suddenly everything moved too fast, and this constitution contains 224 clauses! There’s no time to understand every one…I am astonished. Why this quickly? And this is very important. It’s more important than the president himself. The president will come and go. But the constitution will stay.”

“I read the constitution. I said ‘yes.’ I agreed to it,” countered his friend Khaled Hasan, 47, a sales manager, who had shouted “objection!” at points he disagreed with as his friend spoke. “It gives rights to Egyptians, and it gives them a good life. And the most important part is that the presidency will not last longer than four years. After that, we can elect someone else.”

“This constitution is like a speeding train,” another man interjected. “And all of us are on it.”