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What Egyptians Say About Their Referendum


Are you voting Yes or No on the constitution?

Of course, yes, said a bearded young man in Shoubra while lining up to vote for the referendum.

Have you read the constitution?

No I haven’t but it is enough for me that it employs sharia as the only source of legislation in the country, this by itself is enough for me to vote for it.

Yes my son, then when you get sick and you are not accepted in hospital till you prove you are needy, or when your boss kicks you out of work without any explanation, then take the constitution and let it help you out, responded another old man in the line.

If the conversation had stopped at this level, one might say that the propaganda machine of the Islamists that presented the constitution as a debate on religion has worked. But the conversation did not stop at this level and to the surprise of everyone in the line the young bearded man who they called the sheikh said, We want to work uncle, let the constitution pass so the country is stable and so work kicks off. We haven’t worked for two years, let it pass my uncle and then other issues will call for their own solutions.

The argument in the line went on for a while: whether the constitution will bring in stability or not, and whether voting ‘Yes’ will end the current crisis.

The dominant debates about the constitution and the referendum have divided the country into two camps. The ‘Yes’ camp and the ‘No’ camp of the referendum seem to be divided along political lines, with Yes being pro-Morsi and No being against. But beyond the obvious reasons why people will vote Yes or No on the referendum, there is an army of people whose vote is not dictated by what is in the constitution but by the economy. Listening to Egyptians queuing to vote in the referendum one would think the vote is on the economic project of the new government not on the constitution. Despite the effort of the Muslim Brotherhood to project the current crisis as a war on Islamists by liberals who oppose the constitution because of the sharia law, most of the low middle class and the poor who voted No in the referendum objected to the constitution because they are not happy with the economic situation in Egypt.

Voting No for the Brotherhood (Standing in line at Shoubra el-Kheyma)

Mahmoud, a taxi driver, told me he is saying No to the constitution without reading it. Enough, he says, I do not trust the Muslim brotherhood anymore. They care for power, for Koursi (the chair of power), not for the people. We do not believe in them anymore, he says. Mahmoud, like Ayman who is a plumber, voted for Morsi in the presidential elections, but as Ayman said, We voted yes for him, not because we did not want Ahmad Shafiq like most people, but we voted for him because we thought he was one of us. He will be scared of God and he won’t work against the poor. Because most of the Muslim Brotherhood’s members are poor, his clan and family, as he likes to call them, are all poor. We thought he would be a president for us the poor, but since he came we saw only a rise in prices, no stability and no work. Hajj Abou Adel interrupted Ayman. He talked about the latest decree of the president, to remove subsidies on gas and to put more taxes on many basic consumer products. A supporter for the constitution said, But the president cancelled the decree the next day. This, however, did not stop the discussion. Ahmad said, He did not cancel it. He postponed it till we say Yes and then he will put it in effect.

Yes, and this is exactly why we do not trust him anymore, said Omar, a car mechanic  who has not been working for a while. Egypt needs someone strong with charisma, not someone who issues decrees in the morning and cancels them at night. He is so weak and the way he acts as a president is just rubbish.

The joking went on for a bit about the five decisions the President issued and cancelled. I love the president of the morning because he cancels the night’s disastrous decision.

Shoubra el-Kheyma, where we are talking, voted largely for Morsi in the presidential election. But there is now a general dissatisfaction with the economic situation among the lower middle class and poor Egyptians. Voting on the constitution is, for them, a vote on the economic vision of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are voting No, not because they are anti-Islamist or secular. Most of them haven’t even read the constitution, and they do not seem to care for it. They are voting No because of the economic policies.

Voting yes for stability (Standing in Line at Haram Giza)

I voted No for Morsi in the presidential elections, said Ahmad, a painter from Haram in Giza. But now I’m voting Yes for the constitution. We are fed up and burned out, we just want things to settle so we go back to normal life. We want stability so the work will run again. Next to him stood a taxi driver who said, I haven’t seen a tourist for the past two years. You are the first one I’ve seen. The situation is really bad. If we say No to the constitution, it will take ten more months to write a new one, and what do we do in the next ten months, just wait? They should have mercy on us.

The deep economic crisis made some of the voters long for the days of Mubarak. We said, Mubarak went and it is over, said Khaled, who used to work in the tourism industry. There is a revolution and life will be nicer, better and we get work, now we are longing for the Mubarak days, at least there was stability and there was some work it was not much, but it was better than now at least. Khaled though will vote Yes in the referendum because he wants to get done with the constitution and move on. He wants stability and stability, he believes, will bring jobs and work. As his brother, Munir, standing in the line says, this is what the Muslim brotherhood have promised us: Yes means stability and turning of the wheels. Let’s see if they meet their promises this time.

Munir voted for Hamdeen al Sabahi, the Nasserite candidate, in the presidential election, and he would still vote for him in the next presidential election. But for now, I want this to end so we focus on our work, the country can’t take it anymore. They tell you the reserves of the Central Bank are enough for three months and then Egypt will be broke. What will we do then? Munir was interrupted by another supporter of Hamdeen, Sayyid, a car mechanic, who said, We will go knock on the door of the Muslim Brotherhood rich people and ask them to feed us! Are not they Muslims and want to help the poor? All Egypt will be broke and poor in three months, so let them see if their charity will solve the problem. Sayyid’s remarks elicited a five-minute conversation around the similarity between the economic policies of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Mubarak regime. What has changed, Amin asked? We are still getting loans from the IMF, imposing taxes on the poor, bringing investors, not talking about industry only services.

Ahmad interrupted Amin. Ahmad works at the school. He says, the policies are the same, but now they are bearded, before they were not! We are saving money on the shaving cream and razor. No need to shave beards. Everybody laughs.

Sayyid, Amin, Munir, Ahmad are all going to say ‘Yes’ not because they like Morsi or the Muslim Brotherhood, but because of a desire for stability. They are scared of the total collapse of the economy at a time when they are barely making ends meet.

The media announced the result of the vote: 63% voted Yes and 37% voted No. Unlike the presidential or the parliamentary elections, which had a high rate of participation, only one third of Egyptian voters participated in the referendum. It is partly due to the disenchantment with the ballot box that did not bring any change after the revolution. But it is mostly due to the economic situation. It has alienated the poor from both parties. The struggle does not seem to be secularism versus Islamism, but over economic policies. The road is still long, and the revolution is ongoing.

Mayssoun Sukarieh lives in Cairo.

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