ALEXANDRIA - In the weeks since former president Hosni Mubarak took a permanent
holiday in the Red Sea riviera town of Sharm el-Sheikh, post-revolutionary
Egypt has see-sawed between the euphoria of mass liberation to the tension of
midnight-to-morning curfews and tanks in the streets as the loathed State
Security Investigation Service is dismantled.
On an overcast afternoon in central Alexandria, schoolyards dotting the warrens
radiating from the city's 20 kilometer-long corniche, thousands upon thousands
of first-time voters joined fairly orderly queues, often for hours while they
waited to cast
ballots on their country's immediate future. Staunch advocates of localized
progressive liberalism mixed bearded men and niqab-clad women supporting
the Ikhwan, commonly known as the Muslim Brotherhood.
Despite an assault by violent agitators on Mohammed ElBaradei and his family as
they approached a polling center in southern Cairo, the process was
overwhelmingly peaceful everywhere else and took on the air of a diffuse public
ElBaradei, though previously unknown to many Egyptians while based in Vienna as
the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is considered a contender
for the presidency when the first free elections are held. ElBaradei has been a
strong supporter of the "no" camp in the referendum on constitutional reform,
while setting his in the sights on the post-Mubarak presidency.
ElBaradei, unlike the other serious contender, the Arab League's Amr Moussa -
who views any voting as a massive step forward - is highly skeptical of the
amendment agenda put forth back by the military. But Saturday was not about
high-profile figures grabbing headlines, for the first time it was about
Egypt's estimated 45 million voters making a choice for themselves, albeit a
Results announced on Monday revealed that 77% voted "yes" to the proposed
amendments, which include limiting the presidency to two four-year terms and
easing restrictions on independent political participation. The amendments were
written by lawyers and judges nominated by the military.
On polling day, in an immaculately tiled, rectangular courtyard of a
three-story Italian Catholic school called the Instituto Don Bosco, hundreds of
exuberant Alexandrians, laughed, cajoled, and cried out for freedom, grateful
for the end of the suffocating Mubarak era.
"This is a great moment in [modern] Egyptian history," a broad-shouldered man
named Hassan Shalapy beamed to Asia Times Online. As his toddler tugged at his
legs, Shalapy boasted his "no" vote in Saturday's nationwide referendum was the
first of his life.
"My vote is necessary for the future of my children." Shalapy said that for the
first time in his life, he saw himself and his family as having a genuine stake
in the Egyptian state. His wife, Basant Yusuf, wearing creme-colored hijab
and a wide smile, strode forth from the ballot box said that she cast a vote in
the "yes" column. The notion that their household's votes seemed to cancel each
other out was moot. The process in and of itself was something to be
celebrated, virtually regardless of the outcome.
A perpendicular framework of school desks was manned by effusive poll workers
and deep, wooden and plate glass vote boxes were stained by splotches of
electric red "flower-brand endorsing ink" as men and women daubed their digits
with immense pride.
For many, the vote was framed in a simplistic duality of change while
reinstating and preserving a modicum of stability, versus entering a new,
chaotic but truly democratic void - an uncertain prospect for many who for
their entire lives have only known iron-fisted stability.
In the end, as the votes were tallied late on Sunday, stability won out. Though
not nearly everyone who favored "yes" was a dour Islamist, many simply wanted
to get the country's economy back on track and speed up Egypt's political
reintegration, rather than have months upon months of maneuvering that could
leave voters in limbo.
Signs of intimidation and coercion, hallmarks of the balloting process in the
Mubarak era, appeared largely absent at stations across Alexandria. Every voter
approached by Asia Times Online said the March 19 poll was the first time they
had voted in their lives. Yet there was a nuance.
Many had in fact voted in the Mubarak years but since they viewed those
elections as entirely rigged, state-crafted theater, Saturday's turn-out - an
estimated 14 million or 40% - was the first truly free one where the results
were not guaranteed in advance while the security forces had much less of a
free hand to corral and cajole as they had in the recent past.
The other column of participants had abstained from the Mubarak process
altogether out of resentment for his vast, entrenched patronage system which
favored cronies and family members who served the long standing "Pharoh" rather
than the citizenry the regime ignored until its ultimate collapse.
A brother-sister duo hailing from Alexandria's Western-educated, intellectual
class feared the entrenchment of the newly decriminalized Ikhwan. "They [the
Muslim Brotherhood] want Egypt to be like Iran. They want to take us back
hundreds of years. Don't you see them [campaigning] out front?" Nadia Daoud
When asked how she thought the rest of Egypt would go, Daoud said she remained
unsure but wished that the radical executive, legislative and judicial reforms
would move Egypt forward. Her brother Mohammed, like most of those questioned,
claimed to have never participated in Egypt's political system until March 19.
"We have had 30 years of false elections. No more."
Outside of the Italian school, a faded tram rumbled by on tracks buried in the
hot asphalt and the lines of people were as long as they had been on entering
the voting grounds as the day's 11 hours of democratic elation and uncertainty
progressed. Across town at the rough-hewn Atar'een Primary School, voters
shuffled in and out in the shadows of a neighboring army barracks where a
hulking beige tank and armored personnel carrier sat like massive immobile
tortoises symbolizing the Egyptian military's slow moving, omnipresence in
daily life here.
Voters cast their ballots amidst a patchwork of tents constructed of sheets of
burlap and brilliant colorful cloth erected over the school's sandy courtyard.
Exiting the scrum of the schoolyard, Joseph, a Francophone Coptic Orthodox
Christian in a smart blazer and neatly clipped mustache, emphasized that the
passing of this referendum, which is favored by Egypt Islamists including
implacable Salafis, was entirely unacceptable.
Alexandria's Coptic community suffered a suicide bombing during the 2011 New
Year's Mass in which at least 23 Copts were killed and dozens of other
grievously injured while leaving a service at the al-Qidiseen church. Attacks
on Egypt's Christians and the failure to prevent communal violence has been a
legacy of Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) regime, whether due to
outright negligence or perceived indifference. Copts in Alexandria and
elsewhere will not be pleased to either Salafis of Brotherhood members come
into power in serious numbers and hold secularism in their nation's fraught
political system as an essential element to their survival as a religious
Mustafa Mohammed, an English teacher in his 20s, said he threw in his lot with
the "yes" camp, not out of support for the Muslim Brotherhood, or less so the
outmoded NDP, but because he believed the changes suggested by the council of
scholars would lead to "more stability, [and] fewer acts of thuggery". However,
most importantly because the new political parties were still in a "fragile"
gestation period and would not be ready to contest elections in a timely manner
dictated by the military's desire to hand over the reins to civilian power
Because of Egypt's massive literacy deficit among its fellaheen, the
vast rural peasantry subsisting along the waters of the Nile River, the return
of civilian-led political stability accompanied by the exit of the military
from politics is the best way to avoid further unrest among the masses.
At present, Egypt is being run by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces which
appointed an esteemed judicial council to oversee the transition to democracy
led by Tariq al-Bishri, a long time Mubarak critic and retired judge who is
considered a moderate Islamist who can mediate between the country's polarized
forces of repressed Islamism and liberal-leaning, socially networked
democratizers who led the revolution, known collectively in Arabic as Thawra
shabaab hamza wi'ishreen yanayir, the January 25 revolutionary youth.
Mohammed said that once stability was quickly ushered in with the nine proposed
amendments to the constitution affirmed, "we'll be able to change the
constitution later and it will be impossible for the NDP to come back". Ibrahim
Mitwali, a friend of Mohammed's, strongly disagreed.
"We want Egypt to have a European-style parliamentary democracy" and for this
to happen, Mitwali followed up, "people should have one year to form new
political parties. We have had enough of no change [in Egypt]. We want liberty
Mohammed Ahmed, a lanky, 19-year-old university student told Asia Times Online
that the youth who pushed so hard for al-Thawra, the Tahrir revolution, needed
a "no" vote to ensure they had time to collect their thoughts and properly
organize themselves to put Egypt on a forward path irrespective of its
authoritarian history and dated 1971 constitution. "We need at least a year to
understand what is going on!" Mitali stated.
The deep divide over the referendum highlights an emerging schism within
Egyptian society. For the country's Facebook generation who lit the nation's
heart ablaze for 18 days in a bid to overhaul the entire political system, the
proposed amendments are half-measures which do not go nearly far enough to
reform the Arab world's most populous state where authority is far too heavily
concentrated in the executive branch and the unceasing "emergency law" has been
a way of life for over a generation.
The judicial council selected by the military to rush together the cluster of
proposed constitutional changes was only assembled at the end of February and
in Alexandria, campaigning only began a few days before the vote as fully
veiled "sisters" from the Muslim Brotherhood and pro-democracy activists handed
out flyers, stickers and posters to motorists jammed on Alexandria's gridlocked
corniche, urging voters on the importance of "yes" and "no", respectively.
Egypt went from a stasis where it was not uncommon for men to expect to rule
until death. In the nearly 60 years since the overthrow of King Farouk and the
advent of Gamel Abdel Nasser's reactionary, post-World War II Arab nationalism,
Cairo has only seen two transfers of power until February 11 of this year.
In a turn of fate, the Muslim Brotherhood and the NDP are seen as de facto
allies in a decisive "yes" vote which will alter the status quo less than the
progressives desire to create a "new" Egypt in which the Brotherhood and NDP
would make way for a new wave of political thinking led by liberal idealists.
According to Mohammed Attiya, chief of Egypt's elections commission, early
results came in Sunday evening, Egyptians overwhelmingly cast their lot in the
"yes" category that aims to fast-track the transfer of interim power from
soldiery to civilian actors within six months. Both parliamentary and
presidential campaigns will apparently be held in this now extremely tight
Many of the young people who campaigned, and in some cases lost their lives, to
oust Mubarak may feel their movement has been hijacked in approval of the
referendum which they feel empowers both remnants of the NDP and the Muslim
Brotherhood, neither of which the revolutionaries nor their allies like the
Copts, want to see come to power.
Though the exercise of a free vote astounded and elated many, will undoubtedly
fade away as a rapid jockeying for power is on the verge of ensuing. The
emergency law will not be abolished as many had hoped but will be limited to
six-month impositions, requiring ratification by popular vote. The presidency
will be limited to four year terms with a limit of two terms rather than the
six-year terms of which former president enjoyed six before he was deposed.
The results of the referendum will insist that whoever is elected president in
the upcoming election must appoint a deputy within a month of being certified
president, a decision Mubarak avoided until his elevation of Omar Suleiman,
then longtime director of the Mukhabarat intelligence organization, during his
last days in office.
Democracy activists in Egypt feared the results of a "yes" vote because they
believe it does not provide them sufficient time to organize and substantially
challenge the old order which was the driving internal factor in the uprising
to begin with.
The taking down of Mubarak was a fairly straight-forward, linear goal but the
revamping of his labyrinthine political system, rather than the creation of an
entirely new one favored by the Tahrir Square youth, will likely yet prove to a
much larger challenge.
The mere fact that such a vigorous demonstration of democratic principles took
place at all has done much to reanimate Egypt's almost entirely corroded,
previously cynical political outlook.
Alexandrians told Asia Times Online that, regardless of the initial vote's
outcome, for the first time in their lives they are optimistic about the future
of their country and that the aged, burdensome hand of the Pharaoh had finally
given way to the forces of inevitable progress. The dawn of a new Egypt has
finally become visible.
Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle
East and South and Central Asia.
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