Friday 18 March 2011

Yes or No?

(This note is from 17 March but it was posted after midnight)

Today, there is only one issue to any discussion in Cairo: whether to vote “Yes” or “No” in the constitutional referendum that will take place on 19 March. The constitutional amendments, which were proposed by a committee of constitutional experts assigned with the task by the army in the end of February, are supposed to offer a temporary solution to hold free presidential and parliamentary elections soon, and to pass a new constitution afterwards. The draft consists of amendments in laws regarding presidential and parliamentary elections and state of emergency, and it contains a new chapter that degrees that a new constitution will be passed six months after parliamentary elections. The amendments do not touch the powers of the president in any way, leaving Mubarak’s elected successor with the same near-divine powers that Mubarak had. This solution was at first received with reserved optimism by the opposition, but after conferences by constitutional and legal experts in early March, the tone of most of the opposition soon changed into a largely unified rejection of the amendments, and a demand for an altogether new constitution now, before presidential and parliamentary elections. Three major players support the amendments, however, and they have a lot of influence: The old ruling National Democratic Party, The Muslim Brotherhood, and the Salafis. They have different reasons to do so. The National Democratic Party and all the folks of the old system hope to keep any change as limited as possible. The Muslim Brotherhood seems to partly trying to prove themselves as a reliable coalition partner towards the NDP, and partly trying to have the elections as soon as possible due to their vast advantage in organisation and outreach as compared to other political movements.

These are the options: A “Yes” means presidential elections in the summer, with a new president who has the same powers which Hosni Mubarak had, followed by parliamentary elections in September, and a new constitution to be drafted by the parliament. A “No” means that the Army will issue a temporary constitutional declaration that determines key points of how the country is to be governed in the transitional period, and a constitutional committee drafts a new constitution, which will be subject to a referendum before elections. For most Egyptians, the situation is confusing, because all arguments both for a “Yes” and a “No” vote argue with the need for a democratic constitution and political and social stability, and evoke the fear of a new dictatorship.

The schedule of the referendum is hasty to say the least, and it is clearly not very well planned - it seems to me the army did not even seriously consider the option of there being a major “No” campaign in the first place. State media are officially neutral, and a lot of effort is made to make the referendum transparent (international observers are allowed, a first in Egypt). But there is a lot of tacit campaigning by state media arguing for the need of the citizens to take their decisions slowly and carefully and not hastily. And there is a television campaign with the slogan “Yes to participation in the referendum”, which without being a “Yes” campaign, features the word “Yes” in a very suggestive way.

For the past week, there has been a huge amount of arguments against the amendments in the press and on the Internet. But on the streets, the “No” camp has been slow to emerge, and the Muslim Brotherhood and others have had plenty of time to cover much of Egypt with “Yes” posters, leaflets, and meetings. Only today has the situation changed, and in Cairo there are now plenty of “No” and “Yes” leaflets alike being distributed. In Alexandria, friends of mine were also organising a big leaflet campaign for a “No” vote. In the village, my friends held a public meeting on Wednesday, and are talking to people today and tomorrow. The problem of the “No” camp is that especially in Cairo much of their campaigning is still confined to a very limited geographic area. There is a geographic blindness due to the class society that makes the intellectual and political activists focus on particular areas of the city, and ignore many of the most populous and thus most important areas in the outskirts of the city.

This noon I went to see M. whom I hadn’t met after I had left for the countryside a week and a half ago. He was in a rather depressed mood because of the dominance of Islamist factions and the old system in the popular areas (like the one where he lives) and the social isolation of the intellectuals, to whom he belongs. He says: “You know, in a way I am tired of the revolution. In the past we just lived here, and we didn’t care because it wasn’t our country. Now that this is our country, I’m all the time worried about it.”

Y. whom I also met at noon was equally concerned about the containment of the “No” camp in relatively limited circles. He was also having an ongoing debate with his fiancee who was supporting the “Yes” vote. Her arguments were that we have already realised what we wanted; that we should take it slowly and not change everything at once; and that we cannot work with all the demonstrations going on and need to get back to normality. Y’s fiancée was at one of the Tahrir demonstrations herself, but her arguments are similar to those offered by people who weren’t participating in the revolution in the first place. Y: “Those of my colleagues who were against the revolution at first, and who wanted Hosni Mubarak to stay, are now all claiming the revolution for themselves, and they want to vote Yes in the name of the revolution which they were opposed to in the first place.” Now this is, of course, an analysis coloured by Y’s own commitment to support the “No” vote. But he has a point. All arguments are now made in the name of the revolution, while lots of Egyptians were sceptical of the revolution, and Egypt’s most important counter-revolutionary instance, the National Democratic Party, is running for the “Yes” vote.

However, this doesn’t mean that people who want to vote “Yes” would automatically support the old system. Y’s fiancée doesn’t - she is just hesitant about rapid change. A Taxi driver who took me to Sayyida Zaynab, an old popular area in the south of Cairo, argued emphatically for a Yes vote in the name of realising democracy. His argument (and it is an argument that follows the argumentation of the Muslim Brotherhood) is that the military government must give way to a civil government as soon as possible so that the situation can stabilise and the army can return to the barracks, the country has a democratically elected president and government, and then there is time to draft a new constitution. Many others, too, tend to vote “Yes” because of the promise of a quick return to normality and a new democratic constitution, combined with the fear of a military dictatorship.

Sheikh N. whom I met in Sayyida Zaynab, however, was strongly for a “No” vote: “The system has fallen, and so will the constitution fall.” His view, which is quite representative of the various arguments for a “No” vote is that the old constitution is a very bad one, a cornerstone of a dictatorship by giving the president practically unlimited powers. It is a dead body for which any treatment comes too late: It can only be buried. The “No” argument is that if Egypt is to be a democratic country, and if it is to have an orderly transition with a quick return to normality, a new and democratic constitution must be the first step, and amending the old constitution opens the door to a new dictatorship.

Th., a local real estate broker from the Sayyida Zaynab district, offered a third point of view. He is not going to vote at all, and he is telling his family not to vote either. He thinks that the revolution has brought Egypt nothing except additional crime and chaos, and that Egyptians are a hopelessly selfish and corrupt bunch: “Nothing will ever change in this country. They changed the president, and who is ruling the country now? The National Democratic Party, and the army. The old system, that is. It will be just like it always was, and we will be ruled by a bunch of thieves, the elections will be a show where you can earn 200 pounds by voting for the right candidate. I know it, I have seen them rigging the last elections with my own eyes. I have been abroad, and I have seen how things are elsewhere. In Italy, they have a respectable health insurance. I just had to pay several thousands for a heart operation that was supposed to be covered by the insurance. In Lebanon, you buy bread by the kilo and don’t have to queue for a dirty loaf like here. Those countries have civilised people and respectable governments, but it will never happen in Egypt.” Few months earlier, I would have taken Th.’s bitter cynicism as entirely normal, a realistic assessment of the way things really are. Today, it stands in a striking contrast with both the optimism of wide parts of the population, as well as the anxious worry of the activist revolutionaries. Sheikh N. who spent the revolution from 25 January until 11 February demonstrating, argues to Th. that things have already become a little better, and they will become a lot better, but it will take time. Th. won’t buy it. He knows how the system works, he plays his bitter and cynical part in it, and unfortunately, he is not entirely wrong. Corruption, side-businesses, shady deals, election-rigging, and police brutality will not simply disappear. They continue to be a part of Egypt also under conditions of democracy, and the best of expectations is that they will become less. This will be a major cause of frustration in the coming months and years. It may become so already on Saturday if there is major vote-rigging or violence against voters on the referendum day (with Egypt’s long history of spectacular election fraud, it is not out of the question, and there are already first reports about bribes and intimidation:

From al-Sayyida Zaynab I took the metro to the Opera grounds where a public meeting on the constitutional amendments headed by the novelist Alaa El-Aswany was going on since three hours. In the metro, there were a lot of leaflets, the bigger part arguing for a “Yes”, and many arguing for a “No”. Whoever got leaflets in their hands was carefully reading them. Most people still do not quite know what exactly the meaning of a “Yes” or “No” vote is, what the amendments are about, and what consequences they would have. There is a huge thirst for information.

At the public meeting, practically everybody present was going to vote “No”, and the debate was less about Yes or No, and more about developing the arguments for a “No” vote. Y. who was covering the event was discontent, because he wanted to see the people pass on leaflets all over the city rather than sitting in the Opera grounds. But during the meeting, leaflets were distributed in order to be photocopied and spread. Y. got two different ones, one which he found unhelpful, only convincing towards those who already know that they want to say No, and another one detailing the specific problems of the amendments, and suggested solutions. He took that leaflet along with him on the way home, and later when I called him he told that he had joined another man in support of a “No”-vote and gotten a group of people involved in a debate. They were at first for a “Yes” vote, and rather than opposing them Y. offered them his analysis of what that would in practice mean. Their first reaction was confusion because they had thought that they knew what to vote, and finally they were convinced that their vote shall be a “No”. Indeed there are a lot of people around who are undecided, or will vote “Yes” just because it seems more commonsensical. In this situation where people want to make an informed decision but feel that they lack information, the argumentative strategy of analysing the situation employed by Y. makes a good impression.

In the taxi on the way back to the apartment where I’m staying, the taxi driver found the whole business with the referendum confusing. On his dashboard he had a “Yes” leaflet that had been passed on by someone on the street, and as we drove through the city, someone gave us a “No” leaflet. He had no idea what to vote. I said to him: “Well, You can read these two and make up your mind. It’s the first time they are asking your opinion.” The confusion of being asked to make a decision about such a complex matter as a constitution is not just due to a shortage of knowledge. It is an altogether new experience in a country where elections and referendums have been nothing more than a show in the past decades. For the first time, people actually are expected to make an informed decision. Right now it seems that the better informed people are the more likely they are to vote “No” (which is not to deny that there are a lot of people who are making the well informed decision to vote “Yes”, but they seem to be relatively fewer) . The referendum is on Saturday, and it is a race against the clock.

Greetings from the Egyptian revolution!