Dispatch from Cairo: Day One of the Constitutional Referendum

In the first day of voting in a constitutional referendum, Egyptians queuing outside polling stations seemed to endorse, as much as the constitutional document itself, the leadership of army chief General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who is now widely expected to stand for the presidency in the coming months.

Eleven people died and dozens were injured in isolated clashes across the country as police confronted demonstrators opposed to the referendum, the Health Ministry announced, while an explosion outside the North Giza courthouse injured none, but shattered windows in surrounding buildings. By the time polling stations closed at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, at least 140 had been arrested on charges of rioting or “hindering” the voting process.

The voice of opposition activists calling for a boycott or No vote, and warning of declining political freedoms, was drowned out amidst the chorus of support for the constitution and the General, and condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I’m voting yes,” said Imbaba housewife Dunya, 36, her lips smeared with the pink ink with which officials required voters to mark their fingers. “The Muslim Brotherhood has tried to tell us that the constitution is ugly, that Sisi is a bad person, but I love him like my father. First I will vote for his constitution, then I will choose him as my president.” While there is clear support for Sisi’s presidential bid, he has yet to publicly announce whether or not he will run.

Outside one school doubling as a polling station in the Pyramids Road district of Cairo, an energetic crowd formed, holding each other aloft, chanting for al-Sisi, and waving posters bearing his image, before setting off on a raucous tour of local polling stations. Inside, voters queued for hours in a huge spiral which choked the school courtyard.

Many of those queuing voiced a desire for stability. They said it was necessary for Egypt, beset by almost constant street confrontations between supporters of the Brotherhood and their opponents for more than a year, to rapidly agree on the basis for a new political settlement.

Casting his vote, interim President Adly Mansour echoed this sentiment, urging all Egyptians to head to the polls. “Your votes are not only on the Constitution, but on the entire roadmap for Egypt’s future as well,” he said.

The slogan “yes to the constitution” was stenciled on walls, plastered on billboards, and sung in jingles crackling from car radios. In many cases a rider was added: “no to terrorism.” There was little evidence of a ‘No’ campaign.

The National Alliance to Support Legitimacy, an umbrella group which includes the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jama’a al-Islamiya’s Construction and Development Party, is boycotting the poll, calling it a “referendum of blood,” a reference to their more than 1,000 supporters killed since the July 2013 ouster of former president, Mohamed Morsi.

Walking past a polling station in central Cairo, a man in his early 30s said that two of his friends, brothers, were killed by security services in August and that the referendum was a façade for a return to military rule.

The Strong Egypt Party, founded by former Islamist presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, along with the April 6 Youth Movement, who had been campaigning for a ‘No’ vote, announced yesterday that they would join the boycott, citing the persecution of activists and a political atmosphere which, they said, made a free and fair vote impossible.

Seven activists from the Strong Egypt Party were arrested in the past week after having been caught with posters advocating a No vote, and decrying police abuses. They were arrested, Human Rights Watch said in a statement, under a broad statute prohibiting terrorism and challenges to the principles of the constitution.

The Path of the Revolution Front and the Revolutionary Socialists, relatively small leftist groupings, were left alone advocating a No vote. Very few of those standing in line would identify themselves as opponents of the constitution or the general.

Inside a polling station in the expensive Zamalek district, Ali, the proprietor of an organic banana farm outside Cairo who participated in the demonstrations which led to the military removing Morsi from power, was an exception. He confidently ticked the red ‘No’ circle in front of election administrators, rather than use the private booth provided.

The constitutional text which he rejects—and which if approved will become Egypt’s third in the space of three years—eliminates a vague but potentially powerful legal status for traditional Islamic scholarship which was encoded in the constitution pushed through by the Muslim Brotherhood at the end of 2012. It also enhances the status and privileges of the military and the judiciary, two of the institutions which backed Morsi’s ouster.

“We don’t want a military overseer,” Ali said, citing the provision for the military trial of civilians which persists in the latest version of the constitution. “If we base all our policies on fear of the other, we will never get anywhere.”

The referendum is all but certain to pass the new constitution by a large margin, although if the turnout is markedly lower than that which approved the previous version its legitimacy will suffer in the eyes of some.

Whilst the crowds cheering outside polling stations give the appearance of unanimity, in fact Egyptian society remains deeply divided. Much of the Islamist and secular opposition will stay away from the voting booths, their antagonism toward the current regime unresolved.

 The new constitutional document may paper over Egypt’s cracked polity, but those tensions will inevitably come to the surface again – perhaps under the administration of the General, whose victory in a forthcoming presidential election now seems all but assured.

Tom Dale is a freelance multimedia journalist based in Cairo. He has been reporting from Egypt and Libya since 2011. You can follow him on twitter at @tom_d_.

Image: Photo: Women queue inside a polling station in the Zamalek area of Cairo, ordinarily an art school, to vote in a constitutional referendum (Tom Dale)