Voices from Cairo on controversial referendum

Clashing viewpoints from Egyptians on the street ahead of a crucial constitutional referendum.

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Nasrallah, who works in El Arish in the northern Sinai Peninsula, came to Cairo on Thursday to vote in the constitutional referendum. On Friday, he paused inside a shelter of wood and plastic sheets recently built in Tahrir Square’s central circle, where the walls are lined with papers full of praise for the revolution’s martyrs and jibes against the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.

Nasrallah complained that President Mohamed Morsi’s administration, despite promises of compensation for families of the dead and wounded, had not brought justice.

“Between all of the people who died in the revolution starting on January 25 until now, nothing has happened,” he said. “There should be retribution, not money.”

Nasrallah voted for the moderate former Muslim Brother Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh in the first round of the presidential election this summer and then boycotted when the choice was narrowed to between Morsi and former Air Force General Ahmed Shafik.

For Morsi and the Brotherhood, he said, democracy “is just slogans”. In Nasrallah’s view, the constitution was written without consensus, in the face of nearly two dozen walkouts. Those delegates who walked out, he said, actually represented the real majority in society.

“I don’t actually know much about the articles in the constitution, but I’m following the majority that pulled out,” he said.


Mahmoud sat on a curb in Cairo’s Matereya neighbourhood on Friday, waiting for his Hyundai to be washed. He called the constitution a “beautiful” document, citing its provisions for healthcare and financial benefits for the neediest members of society, but said the most important aspect was its emphasis on Islamic law.

Quoting a verse from the Quran, Mahmoud said that implementing sharia would in turn solve Egypt’s other problems. In fact, he said, the constitution had not gone far enough. In his view, the drafters should have specified that the “rulings” of sharia were the basis of legislation, rather than “principles” – a stricter description that would allow less leeway for interpretation.

He dismissed the delegates who walked out of the drafting process, saying they had already agreed on the articles that were important to them before leaving.

“This is a good government, but people need to give it more opportunity to work, and the protesters are obstructing it,” he said.

“The majority rules, even in foreign countries like America, this is what happens. It’s in Egyptians nature to like religion. No one will say they don’t like religion.”


Shaaban and Nashat, who were walking near the ongoing anti-government protests at the presidential palace in the upscale Heliopolis neighbourhood, agreed that the constitution was an “invalid” document produced by an Muslim Brotherhood-dominated assembly.

The two raised a host of issues: Nashat said the constitution gave the president too much authority and that he wished it specified a maximum wage, as in Brazil. Shaaban said the document made it too easy to shut down media organisations through lawsuits, gave police the power to detain people without question for 12 hours, and contained holes on education and healthcare that would allow for child labour.

The two worried that Morsi’s Brotherhood and his more conservative Salafist allies would be allowed to intimidate their opposition, citing a sit-in at independent television studios in a Cairo suburb, the reported silencing of opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi when he was invited on a talk show to criticise Morsi, and the death of opposition journalist Husseiny Aboul Deif during clashes at the palace on December 5.

“The entire Christian community is against it, entire blocks of people are against it,” Nashat said.

Shaaban added: “The people ruling Egypt are not actually Mohamed Morsi and his administration, but the Guidance Bureau [of the Muslim Brotherhood].”


On Friday, Mohamed attended a rally in support of the constitution in Cairo’s Nasr City neighbourhood. Standing with amid a crowd waving Muslim Brotherhood flags and wearing headbands reading “Yes to the constitution,” Mohamed said the draft accomplished the key goals of implementing Islamic law, providing for social justice, and banning remnants of the old regime from politics.

Mohamed, who called the constitution the best ever written, said it had been drafted with as much consensus as possible. He said the president had opened the door for negotiation on the contentious articles and that recent violence between supporters and opponents of the government at the presidential palace was neither side’s fault.

“What happened is there were people expressing their opinion peacefully in front of the palace, and then the Brotherhood decided to express its opinion peacefully, and the thugs that don’t believe in freedom of expression attacked,” he said.

Mohamed said those who withdrew from the assembly had done so for self-interested political reasons, not principles, because they wanted “as many favours as possible”. Opposition leaders like Mohamed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabahi had “disappointed” him, he said.

“Of course a small number of them are legitimate revolutionaries, but there are many remnants and thugs,” he said.


Abdul Tawwab, who was operating a small food and drink kiosk in Cairo’s Abbaseya neighbourhood on Friday night, said he was alarmed at how, even after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year reign, presidential power had grown larger in the new, draft constitution.

He said that he was alarmed at how revolutionary, liberal and Christian delegates had withdrawn from the constituent assembly in protest and, like others, asserted that Morsi was governing on behalf of the Muslim Brotherhood and not for all Egyptians.

“Anything built on invalid foundations is going to be invalid,” Abdul Tawwab said, referring to how the constitution was written. He said he intended to vote “no” and that a boycott, which many in the opposition have advocated, amounted to a “yes” vote.

Having once considered himself a member of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Abdul Tawwab said he now believed, after the bloody December 5 violence at the presidential palace, that Morsi had to be charged with a crime and forced out of office like his predecessor.

“People say that Morsi has split the country, but I would say he has helped unify the country, and the remnants and the revolutionaries against him,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera