On January 14 and 15th 2014, Egyptians went to the polls to vote in a constitutional referendum. The 98% approval seemed to suggest that the document had widespread support. But the 38 percent turnout and the events preceding the vote suggested a different, more complex and troubling reality.
The referendum was the third time Egyptians were asked to vote on a new constitution since the January 2011 revolution overthrew the Mubarak regime. This last referendum followed several tumultuous months. Mass protests had erupted during summer 2013 when millions of Egyptians took to the streets demanding the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government of President Mohamed Morsi who was elected in 2012. The military obliged, arresting Morsi and other Muslim Brotherhood leaders and declaring the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Army Chief, General Abdel Fatah el-Sisi emerged as the de facto ruler of the country. In August 2013 protests by Muslim Brotherhood supporters ended violently, signaling a further deepening of the country’s political polarization.
In the months leading up to the constitutional referendum, public space for political dissent, freedom of speech and assembly, and free media began closing rapidly. A new, highly restrictive protest law passed in November 2013 meant that opposition voices, whether from the religious or the secular spectrum of the Egyptian political scene could be silenced more effectively. Those campaigning for a “no” vote in the constitutional referendum found themselves harassed and thrown in jail.
By the time I arrived in Cairo as a member of an international referendum observation mission, the outcome of the referendum was no longer in doubt. Campaigning against the constitution was impossible. City streets were filled with posters in support of a “yes” vote. As I channel-surfed at night before the days of the referendum, every station was running advertisements urging Egyptians to support the constitution and extolling the virtues of the Egyptian military.
My partner and I observed the referendum in the Beni Suef governorate about 80 miles south of Cairo. Voters in the area heavily favored the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohamed Morsi garnered more than 66 percent of the votes in the 2012 presidential election. In 2014, however, the only posters and flyers plastered on building walls and hung over city streets in the governorate’s towns encouraged residents to vote “yes” in the referendum. In a number of places joyous groups of men played loud music and danced by the entrances to the polling places expressing their faith in General el-Sisi and his ability to guide Egypt toward a stable future.
Yet, these overt displays of overwhelming support contrasted in disconcerting ways with the heavy presence of security personnel, the army, police, other security services as well as individuals in civilian clothing, all who displayed weapons around the polling stations. At many polling stations, soldiers perched on the roofs and protected by sandbags, pointed automatic weapons toward the streets. The periodic opposition demonstrations and protests that erupted throughout that day across the governorate, some ending violently, suggested that behind the political unanimity so prominently displayed across the urban landscape, polarization and divisions were running deep.
Within the next couple of months, Egypt is to hold a presidential election and, at some point, parliamentary elections. With repression growing and political polarization deepening these next rounds of elections may well intensify rather than help resolve Egypt’s political conflicts.