Egypt’s referendum between a sweeping ‘yes’ and a feeble ‘no’
Egypt's constitution garners wide support for the sake of stability
A few days ago, a documentary entitled “Please Remember: January 14-15,” in reference to the date of the upcoming referendum on the new constitution, was released. The 12- minute long film, drafted after the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, features interviews with dozens of Egyptians from all over the country with all of them saying they will vote yes in the referendum, with the exception of one who will vote no and two who still need to read the amendments. The documentary was received with enthusiastic support by some and with extreme indignation by others.
For supporters of the new constitution, the film offered an authentic portrayal of Egyptians’ willingness to participate in what they see as a positive step towards democracy. In an article entitled “Sandra Nashaat… That a Girl,” journalist Ahmed Afifi heaps praise on the director, the young woman whose name is mentioned in the title, for her ability to reflect what Egyptians really want and to make all viewers want the same thing.
“She made us feel that we would not be true Egyptians if we do not vote ‘yes’ and do so zealously,” he wrote. “She made us say ‘yes’ even before referendum day. She extracted it from us without pressure and without propaganda. She made us feel the pleasure of ticking ‘yes’ in advance.”
Accurate expose or pure propaganda?
Critics of the film had a totally opposite view, for they viewed it as state-sponsored propaganda that intentionally avoided presenting both sides of the argument. Director Kamla Abu Zikri refused to call the work a documentary.
“It is cheerful and pleasant like a nice clip or a fascinating ad, but it cannot be called a documentary,” she wrote. “This is sheer propaganda and lacks the depth with which documentaries are characterized.”
Activist Wael Abbas simply tweeted, “To fans of Sandra Nashaat, do you remember Leni Riefenstahl?" he asked, referring to the famous German director who was an integral part of the Nazi propaganda machine.
Nashaat refused to categorize her documentary as propaganda and insisted that she did not pick the people she interviewed and that Egyptians across the country will vote for the constitution.
“I found overwhelming approval of the constitution,” she said in an interview. “I was not trying to mobilize the people. I was simply reflecting public opinion as it is and as you could see only one person supported Mursi’s legitimacy compared to hundreds who want stability and who see the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.”
The majority of civilian powers, which played an important role in mobilizing the June 30 protests that toppled the Muslim Brotherhood and many of whose leaders were members of the committee that drafted the new constitution, declared their support for a yes vote.
Political leaders: constitution imperfect, but step in the right direction
Mohammad Abul Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party and member of the drafting committee concurred that the constitution “is not the ideal outcome of the Jan. 25 Revolution,” yet added that it is “remarkable in terms of the rights and freedoms it grants to Egyptians.”
In a conference the party organized under the slogan “Supporting the Constitution,” Abul Ghar enumerated the advantages of the new constitution like freedom of faith, freedom of the press, gender equality, and the limitation of the president’s powers. The implementation of such articles, he noted, requires a powerful parliament that works on drafting the necessary legislations.
“That is why legislators have to represent the people because only then will the people be able to benefit from this constitution,” he concluded. Member parties of the National Salvation Front, the main opposition bloc against Muslim Brotherhood rule, similarly supported the new constitution.
Former presidential candidate and head of the Egyptian Popular Current Hamdeen Sabahi considers a yes vote “a renewal of confidence in the roadmap charted in the aftermath of the June 30 protests with the approval of the Egyptian people.”
Endorsing the constitution, he added, is a continuation of the path started on Jan. 25, 2011: “Those who will vote yes will be endorsing the text of the constitution as well as the revolutions of Jan. 25 and June 30, hence adding constitutional legitimacy to revolutionary legitimacy.”
Sabahi expected the freedoms and rights stated in the constitution to earn it a sweeping yes vote among the Egyptian population.
The Rebel movement, which started the signature collection campaign to topple Mursi, also declared its support for the constitution. “It is not a flawless constitution, but it is definitely better than 1971 and 2012,” the movement said in a statement in reference to the constitutions that were in force during the times of Mubarak and Mursi, respectively. The movement expressed its objection to an article that allows the trial of civilians before military courts, yet praised other articles it saw as a success.
“There are very good articles on social justice, rights and freedoms, and people with disabilities,” the statement added. “This constitution gives all segments of the Egyptian society their rights.”
Civilian powers were joined by the ultra-conservative al-Nour Party, which took part in the roadmap that followed Mursi’s ouster.
Despite disagreements with civilian committee members over articles involving Islamic law, party chairman Yunes Makhioun called for a yes vote adding that “Egypt is going through a critical time, the time of to be or not to be,” he said in a statement. In response to reservations about crossing out an article that offered a strict interpretation of Islamic law, from a Sunni point of view, Makhioun argued that the constitution is not expected to be perfect. “This is a work of human beings after all, so it has to have negative and positive sides,” he explained. “Plus each party had to display some flexibility so that we can move on.”
Sheikh Yasser Borhami, a prominent leader of the Salafi movement in Egypt and member of al-Nour Party, warned that three disasters will take place if the constitution is not approved. “One is the collapse of the state, the economy, and security; two is the division of the army; and three is foreign intervention,” he said in a conference held in support of the constitution in Alexandria.
Government, religious officials weigh in
Approval of the constitution took a more official shape as interim president Adli Mansour openly praised the new draft through urging the people to vote in order “to fulfill our revolution the way we wanted it with a constitution that marks the first step to a civil, democratic state.”
One day before, Minister of Defense and Army Chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi did the same when he linked the new constitution to the Jan. 25 and June 30 revolutions and urged Egyptians to make a change similar to the one they made on those two days through taking part in the referendum. He also praised the constitution saying, “it achieved real balance, harmony, and justice.”
The constitution also acquired religious leverage as senior Muslim and Christian clerics took part in the campaign supporting the constitution.
Former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa stressed that approving the constitution “will show the entire world the difference between Egyptians and those who seek to shed Egyptian blood” while Coptic Pope Tawadros II argued that the passing of the constitution “is bound to bring Egypt a lot of blessings.”
'Strong Egypt Party' vocalizes strong opposition
Not all factions that took part in the June 30 protests against the Muslim Brotherhood approve the constitution, though. The Strong Egypt Party, founded by former Muslim Brotherhood member and former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abul Fotouh announced the group's boycott of the referendum after declaring earlier that it would vote no. In a statement it issued less than 24 hours before the first day of the referendum, the party voiced its objection to what followed the ouster of Mursi by the military.
“We object to the bloodshed, the detentions, and the violations and the way they deepened divisions and destabilized security,” said the statement. “And we object to the return of Mubarak’s repressive regime.”
The statement added that the referendum is being held in “an atmosphere that violates the most basic internationally acknowledged democratic rules,” in reference to the arrest of several of party members as they were campaigning against the constitution.
The April 6 movement announced its boycott of the referendum, yet proclaimed its intention to monitor it in order “to issue reports that expose violation and evaluate the referendum process as a whole,” according to the movement’s statement. The decision comes in defiance of the Higher Elections Committee which banned members of the movement from monitoring the poll.
The movement, however, called upon Egyptians to vote no to the constitution, citing its objection to 20 articles in the new draft. “The constitution gives the president and the military a lot of powers and allows the trial of civilians before military courts,” said Khaled al-Masry, member of the April 6 politburo.
The pro-Muslim Brotherhood National Alliance in Support of Legitimacy urged Egyptians to boycott the referendum and stage protests against “a new massacre to complete the usurpation of the homeland,” as the group said in a statement. “Do not listen to the leaders of the coup, for blood is dripping from their mouths,” the statement added.
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