Al-Ahram Weekly Online   24 - 30 March 2011
Issue No. 1040
Egypt
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Saying no to no

Amira Howeidy ponders the meaning of the overwhelming yes vote on constitutional amendments

Few would have predicted the 77.2 per cent "yes" vote in Egypt's first ever free referendum, held on Saturday 19 March. Following two weeks of intense and emotional debate between supporters of constitutional amendments -- the subject of the referendum -- and those who opposed them, what was perceived as a 50-50 divide turned out to be something else altogether.

The amendments, introduced to nine articles in the constitution, allowed for full judicial supervision of elections, limited the president's term to four years and two terms, and eased restrictions on the nominees for the presidency. They also made it obligatory for the coming parliament to form a 100-member assembly to draft a new constitution within six months of its election.

But the heated debate over the past two weeks was far from focused on the amendments themselves. It shifted, instead, to what they might mean for the political elite, divided as it was between the no and yes camps. On the surface, the no camp lumped together the vast majority of Egypt's political forces while the yes camp included the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist movement.

The no's firmly objected to the tweaking of the existing constitution and demanded a new one be drawn up ahead of general elections. They also objected to what they characterised as a far too hasty timetable. Following the passing of the amendments parliamentary elections are scheduled for September and presidential elections for December.

The Higher Council of the Armed Forces, which has run the country since Hosni Mubarak was ousted on 11 February, has said it wants the army to return to the barracks within six months after a peaceful transition of power to an elected civilian government. But the no camp argued more time was needed for the emerging post- revolution political forces to reach out to the people and contest elections.

The only organised political forces currently capable of running a successful election campaign, believe any, are the Brotherhood and the rump of the former ruling National Democratic Party. Backed by the private media, figures representing the no camp lobbied against the amendments and issued repeated warnings of a Brotherhood takeover if legislative elections are held according to the current schedule.

To make matters worse, the media hosted only Muslim Brotherhood spokesmen to defend the amendments, thus cementing the group's association with a yes vote. Meanwhile, it was widely reported that the Coptic Orthodox Church supported a no vote.

As referendum day approached, the no media campaign grew more intense. ONTV, owned by Coptic business tycoon Naguib Sawiris, launched an impressive TV ad featuring celebrities, politicians and public figures -- including two Islamic televangelists -- urging the public to vote no. The less media-savvy Salafists were competing in the streets with the no camp, disseminating flyers marketing a yes vote as a religious duty. The Brotherhood actively lobbied for the amendments amid accusations that it had forged an alliance with the remnants of the NDP.

The competition grew ugly, descending into a flurry of accusations and counter accusations. The once-united forces that had brought about the overthrow of Mubarak appeared ever more deeply polarised.

Referendum day went smoothly. Except for an attack on presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baradei at a voting station in Moqattam, the mood was mostly festive.

According to official figures Egypt has 45 million eligible voters, of whom 18 million went to the polls on Saturday. Fourteen million said "yes" and only four million "no". That is 77.2 per cent versus 22.8 per cent, in a 41 per cent voter turnout.

Given that so much pre-referendum debate centred on the Brotherhood, the overwhelming 77 per cent in favour of the amendments begged an obvious question: was it an endorsement of the Muslim Brotherhood? Is the group's influence so extensive it swayed 14 million Egyptians? And was the minority no vote essentially a rejection of the MB and not the amendments?

"There is no single factor behind the overwhelming 'yes,'" says Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo University. "It cannot be reduced to the Brotherhood's influence."

Echoing what has emerged as the most acceptable analysis amongst pundits, El-Sayed added that many voters approved the amendments because they want stability and the economic cycle to start rolling again, both of which they associated with a yes vote.

But religion also a played a role, adds El-Sayed.

"When it became evident that the Christian vote was heading towards no it was interpreted as a hostile stand towards Islam, driving many Muslims to vote yes." There was a lot of fear mongering vis-a-vis the Islamists says Khaled Fahmy, chair of the American University in Cairo's history department. "I'm speechless really," he told Al-Ahram Weekly, "at the amount of fear invested in the Brotherhood in a way that reflects a lack of confidence in ourselves and in democracy."

A "left of centre liberal" who says he disagrees with the MB, Fahmy insists that the group's position during the revolution was "honourable and yet they are being accused of betraying the cause". Fahmy argues that even in radically secular Turkey the Islamists weren't demonised in the way they have been over the past few weeks in Egypt.

"There can't be democracy in Egypt without the participation of the Islamists and there shouldn't be this separation between the 'political elite' and the Brotherhood." The Brotherhood constituted 20 per cent of the 2005-2010 parliament yet their performance was barely a subject of debate. They won only one seat in the 2010 September elections which were marred by widespread rigging in favour of the NDP.

Fahmy's own position contradicts the assumption that only Islamists and their sympathisers voted yes. He was, he says, in favour of the amendments which set a timetable for the military to return to their barracks.

"Voting no would have meant extending military rule and the transitional period. My fear is from the military not the Brotherhood. Even with the best intentions the military [mindset] doesn't trust politicians."

At this stage, says Fahmy, the military may want to return to the barracks but no one knows how this could change in the future.

Three days after the results the yes-no debate rages on, most noticeably in the social media of cyberspace. No camp Facebook and Twitter users flaunted their position by changing their profile pictures to a red avatar which read "no" in Arabic. Supporters of the amendments responded with a green "yes". The prevalence of red, however, was misread by many as a reflection of the wider public's mood.

The 77.2 per cent vote in favour of the amendments has raised questions over the popular notion that the revolution was Facebook and youth driven.

While social media played a crucial role in spreading calls for the 25 January demonstration which evolved into a popular revolution it didn't drive millions onto the street for 18 days until the ouster of Mubarak, argues Ayman El-Sayyad, editor of Weghat Nazar (Points of View) cultural monthly. In fact, the number of protesters expanded significantly throughout the first week of the revolution despite the fact that the authorities shut down the Internet late on 27 January. It remained closed for a week.

If anything, the referendum results have exposed the gap between the more elitist social media community and the rest of the population, leading to a new online debate as cyber activists grapple with the realisation that Egypt is not all Facebook, Twitter and laptops.

Ironically, all presidential candidates and possible contenders -- Mohamed El-Baradei, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, Hisham El-Bastawisi, Karama Party leader Hamdeen Sabahi -- voted no. One Twitter used, Hossam Said, commented: "It seems none of the candidates knows what the Egyptian people want ."

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