Golia: Referendum blues

Maria Golia, author of Cairo: City of Sand, sent me her latest Daily Star column:

Referendum Blues

Egypt’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) should be congratulated for its expeditious handling of the March 26th referendum. Well-scripted, timed, and executed, it also fulfilled the public’s expectations. Everyone knew the yes-no vote would favor the institution of 34 constitutional amendments drafted by the state. They knew it so well that only an estimated ten percent of registered voters, the bulk of which are, in all probability, employed either by the state or NDP backers, bothered going to the polls.

While the usual accusations of fraud have been leveled, they are as empty as the voting boxes. Since the opposition, including the Muslim Brothers, encouraged their constituencies to boycott the polls, they have little grounds for calling foul. Had they participated, they might have more legitimately contested the results.

Granted, the state ensured that there was no time to rally. Yet, if notoriously bungling administrators could mobilize a nationwide election in a few weeks, the Muslim Brothers, feared by the regime for their widespread popularity, could surely have gotten the word around. It may be that in the current depressed atmosphere, even the Brothers figured they would make at best, a poor showing. Then too, there is the justifiable fear of arrest for challenging the state.

Another opportunity has meanwhile been lost. Most Egyptians say, with a rueful laugh, that their opinion doesn’t matter, that the outcome would have anyway been fixed, that they are too busy trying to put food on the table to take time out for futile exercises. Nevertheless, the government has afforded them a valuable lesson in democracy, Egyptian-style, i.e. you had your chance, such as it was, to say ‘no’ and you blew it. So don’t come crying to us.


On the eve of the referendum, another of the ruling party’s tutoring sessions took place as a few dozen protestors tried to assemble and march the two blocks between Tahrir and Talaat Harb Squares. Along the way they were harassed and several were arrested. Those that made it to Talaat Harb were outnumbered twenty to one, surrounded and pressed against the mirrored windows of the Air France office on the square.

There is a very tall, sad-faced, plainclothes cop who oversees these gatherings. When politely but fervently requested to let the few demonstrators, including women and journalists, out of the tortuously packed circle, he gestured with one hand: wait. When asked again, ten minutes later (while women bleated, ‘let us out’, and someone struck up the ‘down with Hosni Mubarak’ chant before either losing or being deprived of his breath), the tall man motioned calmly again to wait.

It became clear that the police were training these young people, these very few brave ones, accustoming them to the idea that they are vastly outnumbered, showing them how being roughed up, much less going to jail, is not fun and probably not worth it. Yes, there were slaps, kicks and punches thrown in the melee, but the prevailing police tactic in these situations consists of encircling protestors and tightening the circle, piling people on top of one another, suffocating them, exemplifying the notion that there is no space for them in Egypt, no air for them to breathe unless they tow the line.

It is likely that the tall sad-faced man felt he was going easy on the protestors; he had all the air of a disappointed father. Likewise, when President Mubarak defends the constitutional amendments, saying ‘the security and stability of Egypt and the safety of its citizens are a red line which I have not allowed and will not allow anyone to cross’, he no doubt speaks what he considers a beneficent truth. Egypt has in fact remained admirably quiet despite economic hardship and regional turmoil; you might even say dead quiet.

The ruling party, which sees itself as Egypt’s benefactor, cannot grasp that by denying civil rights it has condemned people to lives of painfully slow attrition, where each day brings fresh loss, of possibilities and self-esteem. In precisely the same way, America’s Bush regime, blinded by wealth and privilege, serves but a few in the name of democracy.

When Condoleezza Rice offered her pallid criticism of Egypt’s constitutional referendum, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit retorted, ‘Only the Egyptian people have the right to say their views…[this] is our country’. But whose country was he referring to, if not the ruling party’s? Which views can be fully expressed, if not theirs?

The first article of Egypt’s new constitution now reads that ‘the Arab Republic of Egypt adopts a democratic system based on citizenship.’ But what does it mean to be a citizen, what are the rights and responsibilities attached to that title, aside from obedience and mediocrity?

Several articles of the constitution related to personal freedoms have been overridden by article 179, which is meant to replace the Emergency Law, and grants the executive branch a free hand in dealing with whoever it perceives as terrorists. These articles (41,44,45), demanding warrants for arrests and surveillance, were added to the constitution under Sadat, an era known, ironically, for its tapped phones and opened mail. The constitution is hardly sacred writ in Egypt, where actions speak louder than words. Indeed, the new amendments merely formalize existing conditions.

Similarly, while much opposition to the constitutional amendments centered on the notion that they facilitate Gamal Mubarak’s succession, it hardly matters. Whoever Egypt’s next president happens to be, he will be cast in a familiar authoritarian mould. Unless the space for alternative leadership is not only opened but creatively encouraged, it will not magically appear, and the NDP is presently incapable of rising to such a challenge.

One of Cairo’s polling stations is located in an old villa that has been used as a school since the Officer’s Revolution, a splendid building with graceful proportions. Traces of fine Egyptian craftsmanship are still evident in the woodwork, tiling and stained glass, despite a half-century’s accumulated grime and general gratuitous decay. When asked to whom the villa once belonged, the NDP apparatchik-in-charge, perhaps embarrassed that he did not know, said sorry, but he had strict instructions not to answer any questions. ‘What matters’, he said with a hint of menace, ‘is that now it is a school’.