Back in March 2011, I bought a T-shirt in Tahrir Square with a bold Arabic “no” written in black on the front and in red on the back, a message to vote against the constitutional amendments proposed in a referendum that took place one month after Hosni Mubarak was ousted. Some of the ink was slopped on the white cotton because it was made in haste, but the script was elegant and unequivocal.
I'm wearing that T-shirt now and wondering if Egyptians will recall how they were railroaded into that referendum, the same way they were skillfully herded into hastily prepared parliamentary elections last November, and the same way they’re being rushed to the polls once again — this time to vote “yes” or “no” to a constitution spuriously drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly and containing contents of which they are barely acquainted.
In each of Egypt’s recent elections, people voted not just “for” something, but against the violence and unrest that preceded the vote. They voted for stability, as it was popularly perceived, and were willing to sacrifice rights in the name of so-called progress.
The March 2011 referendum came in the wake of the revolution. The November parliamentary elections, which came after 10 days of violent demonstrations near Cairo’s Interior Ministry, diffused the protests. Precisely the same thing is happening now. The referendum scheduled for this month will serve the state as a means of easing the current unrest.
President Mohamed Morsy will use time as a bargaining chip, perhaps conceding a delay, but the referendum of the current constitution draft will go ahead regardless. Unless the opposition devises means to inform the greater public of why they should not accept the proposed draft, weary and disillusioned citizens will, despite misgivings, vote “yes” just to have done with it and “move forward.”
The Mubarak regime fell because it had lost touch with the people, concerned only with maintaining its grip on power. Since the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have entered office, they too have focused almost exclusively on power brokering, and are likewise distanced from the reality of the street. They seem unaware that there are enough angry and disfranchised youths to serve as cannon fodder for months to come; far from restoring stability, rushing the constitutional referendum will set an ever more divided Egypt further back.
The problem is that the people too have lost touch, not just with government, but with one another. Just as the state misjudged the degree of frustration on the street, so has the street misjudged the stubbornness of elected officials still flushed with a long-awaited victory and the international attention it garnered — blinded, as it were, by their own light. They foolishly believe they’re acting on the country’s behalf by “finishing” the constitution, but those who hope that demonstrations — however large or disruptive — will stop the referendum are just as wrong.
If the opposition thinks the majority of Egyptians will support their demand for a more reasoned, egalitarian constitution, they should think again. In the absence of information or persuasive arguments, most people will act as they always have — surrendering their will to government. They will say, “Yalla, let’s go for it — we can change it later on.”
I write this in Upper Egypt, where communities awaiting a decent high tourist season, the first in two years, are grimly watching it dissolve before their eyes thanks to agitation in Cairo. They will largely vote “yes” for anything that allows them to get on with their lives, as will many nationwide whose livelihoods have suffered since January 2011.
Recall the March 2011 referendum proposing to amend the old constitution to enable parliamentary elections and presidential elections. Egyptians flocked to the polls, believing themselves empowered — never mind that they were only allowed to say “yes” or “no” to a question they had not asked, or that the real questions, like how would those elections be organized, who would participate and how long would they be binding were never even formulated.
Egypt might have followed Tunisia’s lead, voting for an interim government and constitution drafting assembly, a process for which they allowed ample time, before a new constitutional government was elected. But Egypt was in a hurry, then as now, and more apt to argue loudly than conscientiously debate plausible alternatives.
When Morsy made his declaration last Thursday, essentially granting himself the last word in any argument, he unwittingly launched the battle for Egypt’s constitution — a battle that might have begun in March 2011, had people been better informed.
Now, here we are again facing another ill-conceived referendum with far-reaching consequences. What the opposition has learned in the last two years about communicating in ways that average people can understand will soon be apparent.
The greater question, however, is whether the Egyptian public has learned enough to realize that sometimes the best way forward is to back up and reflect.
The current draft constitution was composed under all the wrong circumstances. Egypt deserves and can do much better. For this, citizens will have to challenge power and their own urge for stability and instead exercise the right to say unequivocally: “No.”
Maria Golia is the author of “Cairo, City of Sand” and “Photography and Egypt,” and a permanent corresponded for The Middle East (UK) and columnist for the New Internationalist.