An Egyptian woman displays her ink stained fingertip after casting her vote for a referendum on constitutional amendments at a polling station in Cairo March 19, 2011. (Photo: Reuters/Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Fifty three days after the youth ignited a revolution in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that irrevocably changed the country’s and the region’s future, millions of Egyptians are lining up at thousands of polling stations all over the country to cast ballots for a YES or NO vote on a referendum on amendments to the 1971 constitution. By all accounts, turnout is of historic proportions and Egyptians are freely taking their first democratic steps along a long path towards democracy. Significantly, no one knows what the result will be. A poll conducted by young Egyptians over the past week declared the referendum “too close to call.”
The debate leading up to the referendum has been animated and the accusations and counter-accusations furious. Most Egyptians are deciding on the YES or NO today based on fears of the other alternative.
On the one hand, those who have advocated for a YES vote felt that the most important thing today is to move away from the provisional rule of the military, elect a new president and legislature, and then develop a new constitution that would be put forth for a new national referendum. They insisted that a new constitution needs the legitimacy of en elected body to develop it, either a parliament or a constituent assembly appointed by an elected parliament. They also intimate that the people are not ready for the compromises necessary to develop a lasting constitution. Developing a permanent constitution now, they claim, would break the nation apart and throw it to the hands of the military.
On the other hand, those advocating for a NO vote felt that the country, and especially the secular political parties, are not ready for elections. They insist that the fast-paced process of amending a void constitution is undemocratic and that what the country needs now is a broad-based constituent assembly to write a real constitution that should be the one to put forth for a referendum, not the “patchwork” of amendments that are put forth now.
Basically, one camp is stoking fears that a NO vote will keep the military in power (akin to what happened after the 1952 revolution), and the other is stoking fears that a YES vote will usurp the nascent democracy and throw control to undemocratic forces that were able to organize during the Mubarak regime.
In this writer’s humble opinion, both positions are exaggerated, but not so unexpected given the decades of mistrust among the political forces in the country. However, what is lost to most are questions such as “what are Egyptians voting for or against today?” i.e. what are the amendments and what will their effect be? And, what will happen if the referendum fails?
Starting with the latter, a YES vote sends Egypt along a route for quick elections for the executive and legislature, followed quickly by a process to develop a new constitution. However, no one seems to be certain of what happens if the NOs beat the YESes. It seems that the ball will be kicked back to the military council to decide on the next steps. There are no shortage of suggestions by pundits who’ve found a strong voice after the revolution, but most seem to point towards a longer process, overseen by the military, to develop a “legitimate” constitution. Meanwhile, the political parties –of the old traditional variety and the new youth-led ones—would have a “fair chance” to “level the playing field”, and compete for elections. Some are requesting a six-month period for the process to allow for the development of a “road map” to democracy and the development of a democratic constitution.
But, again, what are Egyptians voting for? The battle is over nine amendments that, according to the military, will allow the country to hold “free and fair” elections and to move the country to civilian rule. The military had voided the 1971 constitution and disbanded the parliament. Its provisional rule was thus rendered unconstitutional and, as a friend in the know told me, it felt it needed a precipitous process to give the country legitimacy, especially given how the world is watching Egypt with a microscope.
One of the controversial amendments was that of Article 75, where language for the eligibility to be a candidate for president was added to limit it to those who, and who’s parents, have not been citizens of other countries, and to those who are not married to a non-Egyptian. (Of note – the Arabic language used to write the amendments is gender specific and assumed the candidate is a man and the spouse is a woman.)
On other fronts, most agreed with the amendment to Article 77 that limits the presidency to two terms of four years each, as well as the amendment Article 88 providing for full supervision over the elections to an independent judiciary, instead of the ministry of interior.
Most were also happy about the amendments to article 148, limiting emergency rule to no more than six months, unless a referendum approves an extension, and with the approval of a majority of parliament, as well as the removal of Article 179, known as the anti-terrorism article.
Other amendments affect article 189, articulating processes to establish a constituent assembly appointed by both chambers of parliament, mandate the development of a new constitution within six months, and a referendum to approve the new constitution within 15 days after that.
Regardless of what the result of the referendum will be and whether the YES or NO wins, the real winners are the Egyptian people. As a Yemeni-American in Cairo on this historic day, I have to confess that I felt envious and wanted to have my finger dipped in the pink indelible ink. I’ve been following the comments of Egyptians on television, radio, Twitter, Facebook, and through talking to Egyptians everywhere. Below is a sampling of quotes that reflect how Egyptians felt today. Please excuse the colloquialism.
- So Exciting. First time to vote in my life. Real vote. We are a very lucky generation.
- I voted in AlManial ElE3dadeya things are very positive, police officers are helpful. Things are great.
- About a thousand people in front me now to vote. Still happy despite the fact that will take me an hour to vote
- The evolution of the revolution: About a 1km of people waiting in a line to vote.
- Today is a response to Husni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, Ahmed Nazif & anyone who claimed that Egyptians are not ready for democracy
- Good morning the whole world. The picture shows me, my 2 daughters and my grandson at the polling station very early this morning. For the first time in my life I feel thrilled to go and vote. Congratulations our amazing Egypt for the well deserved freedom. Have a great day all wherever you are on planet earth and the outer space , share our happiness and celebration. Hold your head up high. You are Egyptian.
- Our PM Essam Sharaf refused to cut in line, & stood with us and waited to vote.
- Wow, even Amr Moussa refused to cut in line. Symbolic things, but they mean that so much has changed.
- Cairo Governor kicked out of polling station for refusing to wait his turn http://ow.ly/4hM0A
- First time [I tried to vote] was in May 2005 &they wouldn’t let me in & I vowed I would not let up until I saw this day!
- My finger is pink and my head held high.
- I was also at this polling station, and everyone allowed anyone 60+ to cut line. Including my uncle.
- Just got into a heated debate with a [political opponent] and told him I’m against the const. cuz I don’t want people like him to be thrown behind bars.
- Finally a real country, not a personal farm.
- Aunt just called me, said I voted no because of you – I remembered what you told me when I argued that the people should leave Tahrir.
- My dad above 70 never voted before. He said “for the 1st time in my life I felt that my voice counts and is heard”.