Egyptians are voting Saturday on the country’s contentious Constitution—and after weeks of unrest, the mood in Cairo has shifted. In recent days, the streets have been filled with tens of thousands of citizens, opponents and supporters of the president alike, chanting rival political slogans and waving national flags. Now, an air of anticipation has settled over the capital, as voters contemplate the historic task at hand.
Outside the presidential palace Friday night, the scene of massive protests of late, the crowds had thinned. In place of the angry demonstrators were impromptu group discussions. People sat in circles of plastic chairs and debated—or simply criticized, as it was mostly an opposition crowd—the details of the proposed Constitution. “Everything we’ve been doing in front of the palace is just a show,” said Mohamed Ali, 33, seated in one of the chairs. “This [the discussion] is what’s going to bring results.”
The referendum will not be settled Saturday. President Mohamed Morsi announced this week that half the country will have to wait until December 22 to head to the polls. In the first round, voters in Egypt’s two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, are casting their ballots, as well as in eight other provinces across the country. The rest will vote next Saturday.
Conflict over the document—and over Morsi’s November decree to eliminate presidential checks and balances, in a bid to make sure the referendum went ahead today—has pitted former revolutionary allies against each other, in the worst discord Egypt has seen since the February 2011 ouster of dictator Hosni Mubarak. The turmoil culminated in a day of street fighting outside the palace between members of the opposition and Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood that left hundreds injured and at least six dead.
The trouble started brewing inside the constitutional draft assembly, where (opponents say) the Islamist members who dominated the assembly worked to force through controversial clauses on religious issues such as women’s rights and sharia law. The draft also includes concessions to the country’s military, and it outlines a presidency that critics say will wield far too much power. When the assembly’s non-Islamist members walked out in protest, and the assembly itself seemed to be vulnerable to disbanding by the courts, Morsi issued his decree to protect it, and the assembly then pushed the Constitution through in a marathon all-night session.
The moves reenergized an opposition that has been scattered and ineffective since the revolution, inspiring the kind of mass protests not seen since the final days of Mubarak. Protesters compared Morsi to a pharaoh, and many have even demanded that he step down. “There was a bond that was broken between Morsi and his people, and it’s really hard to rebuild this trust,” says Dalia Ziada, an activist in Cairo. “There must be new presidential elections.”
In the run-up to the referendum, the opposition has been torn over whether to boycott the vote, which it views as illegitimate, or to try to mobilize a "no" vote—though it appears to have settled on the latter. Its real success has been in the protests that shook the presidential palace and so worried Morsi that he rescinded his controversial decree—and so unnerved the Brotherhood that its supporters initiated a crackdown on anti-Morsi demonstrators camped outside the palace, leading to the day of bloodshed earlier this month.
Now, with the first day of the referendum upon them, both sides know the stakes are high. Morsi and the Brotherhood need the constitution to pass in order to demonstrate Egypt’s political and economic viability to voters at home and allies abroad, and to move the country one step closer to the sharia-based society that they advocate as an ideal. The opposition hopes the vote will fail so that they won’t have to spend years trying to roll back the conservative clauses enshrined into law—or to at least make a strong enough showing at the polls to strengthen their case. The Constitution is widely expected to pass. “What I am looking for is a good percentage,” said one woman outside the palace last night who was passing out flyers detailing the Constitution’s flaws. “Then they will have to listen.”
Tempers flared in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria on the eve of the vote, with pro- and ant-Morsi demonstrators facing off with clubs and swords. Reuters reported that a cleric who had used his Friday sermon to urge a "yes" vote on the Constitution was trapped inside his mosque by angry demonstrators, while several cars were set on fire. At least 19 people were reportedly injured in the unrest.
In contrast, the mood was somber in front of the presidential palace in the upscale Cairo neighborhood of Heliopolis, where the walls outside the palace were spray-painted with anti-Morsi graffiti. The troops that had been massed outside the palace in anticipation of unrest shivered in the cold, looking bored.
Inside a curtain shop across from the palace, where employees said business had all but dried up since the protests began, debate over the Constitution had clearly been playing out all day. “I’m so tired of you not knowing if it’s yes or no. You’re driving me crazy!” one salesman teased another, who said he was “90 percent sure” he was voting against the Constitution, but seemed to stop short of being totally convinced. The undecided man, Ahmed Ali, who has been working in the shop for 13 years, said many Egyptians worried that the unrest would continue if the Constitution didn’t pass.
The group had a copy of the Constitution that the Muslim Brotherhood had passed out at the local mosque service, and had underlined in blue pen the parts they had been discussing. The president being able to select members to the upper house of Parliament—“that’s garbage.” The potential for civilians to be tried in military courts—“I’m a civilian. If I have a problem, I want to be in civilian courts.” Freedom of worship for Christians—“that’s good.”
While “the basics of the document are good,” Ali said, there were too many problems with the details for him to be comfortable with it. But he also worried that “there’s going to be a lot of problems if it doesn’t pass as well. There’s going to have to be a new Constitution committee, a new Constitution. And this is going to have to start all over."