The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged referendum
In Translation: The Kurdish referendum and Arab Male Chauvinism

The In Translation series, in which we publish translations of commentaries from Arabic, is brought to you courtesy of our partners at the excellent Industry Arabic translation service. In this installment researcher Rasha Al Aqeedi takes to task the Iraqi newspaper Al-Nahar for its coverage of the recent referendum on independence in Kurdistan. 

Al-Nahar newspaper and Arab Male Chauvinism

Al Hurra newspaper, September 28, 2017

By Rasha Al Aqeedi

The result of Kurdistan’s referendum, in which the “yes” vote exceeded 90%, was no surprise to observers of the Kurdish issue. The Iraqi response was also expected. Feelings of suspicion, fear, and legitimate anger were mixed with Arab chauvinism and abhorrent anti-Kurdish racism – practices that are easily denied yet experienced by every Kurd carrying an Iraqi passport at least once in his life. But as with all forms of defamation, the reaction of the Baghdad-based al-Nahar newspaper summarizes not only the tragic relations of the Kurds with their partners at home, but also the depth of nationalism’s moral decline.

An image implying a young woman’s gang rape by a group of men headlined the page. The page designer intended the young woman to represent Kurdistan, and the men the neighboring countries of Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, and Turkey, in a vulgar and macho display unbecoming of a newspaper bearing the logo of the Iraqi Journalists Syndicate or of a society calling for moderation. The controversial Al-Nahar newspaper does not represent the Iraqi press, but its choice to use that image requires all of us to face a difficult truth: Iraqi society is still chauvinistic from top to bottom, and the “female” is still used to insult the “male.”

Rape has historically been a deliberate military strategy used to strike fear into the hearts of societies and to instill a feeling of defeat in the enemy by insulting his honor, making rape, or even the threat of rape, a form of broad-based psychological warfare last used in Iraq when thousands of Yazidi women were abused. They were humiliated and repeatedly raped by ISIS militants in the name of religion after their men were slaughtered. What would prompt al-Nahar to brandish the image of the rape of Kurdistan in the name of nationalism?

Systemic anti-Kurdish racism is the legacy of generations of Arab chauvinism, which sees other nationalities as outsiders who do not deserve first-class citizenship. In an outpouring of racial spite, derogatory discourse is immediately invoked anytime the “intruders” do not please the “masters.”  Even clerics do not hesitate to provoke rivalries overflowing with anti-Kurdish hate, as some call the Kurds “demons” and see it as their moral duty to fight them.

Interjecting women into the political debate to extort the “other” is nothing new.  Eastern society is both obsessed with, and afraid of, sex. The issue most often revolves around the honor of women: violating it where it is associated with the enemy and seeking to defend it where it is associated with oneself. As sectarianism in Iraq deepened following the fall of the former regime, Saddam loyalists and Arab sectarian groups began to call Iraqi Shias the “sons of mutaa.”  After a decade, the oldest Shia chauvinists fired back, calling Sunnis “sexual jihadists.” Both counteracted the other side’s disparagement by accusing its women of immoral and indecent behavior.

This is not the first time “free” pens in Iraq have expressed a political opinion about a region or sect by portraying the “other” as a sinful or raped woman. During the liberation of Fallujah, the hashtag #fallujah_washes_away_its_shame (الفلوجة_تغسل_عارها#)  and a caricature of a young woman returning home, with her head down as her father waits to discipline her for the “shame” she has inflicted on him, spread across Twitter.

Rejection of the referendum and Kurdish independence can be expressed in measured words, a targeted image, or constructive criticism, but invoking this superficial notion of honor, designed to threaten and intimidate, reflects only the weakness of the argument and the weakness of the individual. It is not possible to see inside the mind of the designer, but one can make some assumptions as to the angry neighbors that await an independent Kurdistan.

The implication that rape and sexual violence is somehow a legitimate form of punishment is an expression of a societal malady deeply rooted in history. All human societies have suffered from this disease, which has not been fully treated but has been contained in many cultures. The culture of the Middle East, however, is not among them.  Al-Nahar owes an apology to all Kurds, and to the countries whose names it has involuntarily attached to an offensive image. Print media is a source of reform: Iraq’s ills cannot be addressed if the media is a source of corrosion.

Egypt's 97.7 Per Cent: If Everyone Votes Yes, Is It Democracy?

Peter Hessler in The New Yorker hits on an important truth about Egyptian politics - its fickleness: 

Hassan was smoking a shisha pipe at a coffee shop near the polling station, and he told me that he planned to vote yes. He had voted for Morsi in 2012. “He was a good man, but there was so much corruption around him,” Hassan said. I asked him if the Brothers are really terrorists.


“Yes,” he said, without hesitating. “I see what is happening on television, the things in Sinai, and I can see that they are terrorists.”

I had heard similar comments from many others. But Hassan surprised me when I asked about Sisi. “I’m telling you, if Sisi runs and wins, then the people will hate him,” he said. “Right now everybody loves him. But, once he gets the chair, then it will all change.”

This is hard to recognize in the 97.7 per cent: beneath the surface, there’s an incredible volatility to the Egyptian majority. Outsiders tend to see two entrenched sides, the security forces and the Islamists, but in fact most Egyptians occupy a much less partisan and less predictable political space. And they still have power, whether it comes through the vote or through public protests.

Thus far, everybody who has tried to run the country in the post-Tahrir era has failed to understand how quickly things can change. Until the bitter end, Morsi and the other Brotherhood leaders truly believed that they remained popular, simply because they had won elections in the past. But, at the polls this week, I met many people who had voted yes on both constitutions, and it was common to talk to a former Morsi supporter who was now an enthusiastic fan of Sisi. Nagat Abdel Latif, a middle-aged woman who worked at the Ministry of Aviation, told me that she came to the polls not because of the constitution but because she wanted to show her support for Sisi. A year and a half earlier, she had voted for Morsi, even though her ministry had been led by Ahmed Shafik, Morsi’s opponent in the Presidential election. “I worked there, so I knew about Shafik,” she told me. “I liked him, too. Still, many of us there voted for Morsi. We just thought it was time for a change. But we were wrong; Morsi was terrible.” She told me that she was certain Sisi would be better.

I suspect that we were to draw a Venn diagram of Egyptians who voted for Morsi in 2012, voted for the 2012 constitution, voted for the 2013 constitution and intend to vote for Sisi in 2014, the overlap would be significant. 

Known Unknown: Why the Egyptian Referendum is a Black Box

Interesting observations by Matt Hall for the Atlantic Council on a question nagging many – the quality of observer missions in the Egyptian referendum. Worth reading the whole thing, but here's the bit that clarifies the question of whether or not this referendum process has been less or more transparent than previous electoral events:

Al Ahram reports that approximately 5,000 Egyptians were slated to observe the referendum—a very small number considering there are upwards of 30,000 polling stations. Not enough, for example, to observe if the overnight seals on ballot boxes were unbroken while in the custody of the military—or to keep a keen eye on voter registries—as was standard practice in past elections.
Part of the explanation for the reduced ranks of poll watchers is that, unlike in previous elections where the bulk of observation was shouldered by party agents, for this vote the High Electoral Commission barred party agents under the specious rationale that the constitutional referendum was not a political party contest—despite the fact that political parties have been instrumental in campaigning, advertising, and mobilizing for the vote. On top of this, many of the experienced domestic groups with national networks decided to sit out the referendum owing to the overall oppressive environment, or had trouble securing government permissions. For example, the group Shayfeenkum (“we see you”), which has observed Egyptian elections since 2005, reported 60 percent of their applications were refused. And, of course, observation groups affiliated with the FJP have been banned since the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood, from which the party stems, a criminal organization.

Of the domestic groups observing the referendum, most have limited reach, resources, and technical proficiency. The only group that pledged to field a nation-wide observation mission, Tamarod, has no prior experience in the technical aspects of observation. Moreover, as the progenitors of the June 30 revolution that this election is meant to secure, their professional objectivity is suspect. Indeed their campaign spokesperson declared the objective of the group’s electoral observation is to prevent “schemes by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

In addition to gleaning information for a national audience, domestic observers serve as essential antennae for international observer missions, who are always far less knowledgeable about local conditions. For better or worse, the statements of international missions often are taken as the final word on an election in international media and foreign capitals, and the veracity of these statements depends in large part on quality partnerships with local actors.

The referendum has clearly been, to say the least, problematic since both people campaigning for a boycott and those campaigning for a "no" vote have been subjected to arrests, access to state and private media has been extremely imbalanced, and the overall political context is a highly repressive one. As a result, part of the debate over the referendum has been whether it tells us anything of use. You could break down the debate in the following way:

  • Triumphalist: Those like the government, its supporters and most of the Egyptian media who see the results as a triumph for Egypt, a blow to the Brotherhood, an endorsement of Sisi and an affirmation of the roadmap.

  • Pragmatic: Those who see the referendum as revealing genuine popularity of Sisi and public support for military, and that even if undemocratic or populist it is a reality that foreign observers, disappointed revolutionaries and others need to understand. These stress the decent apparent turnout to point out that a large number of Egyptians do support the current regime, like it or not.

  • Skeptical: Those who see the referendum as largely meaningless due to the impossibility of campaigning for a boycott or "no" vote, and the overall repressive environment and hysterical press. In essence, while the referendum is being used for propaganda purposes, it tells us little about Egypt's political realities aside from that the army is powerful. This has been a dominant response among Western analysts, much to the ire of some Egyptians.

  • Rejectionist: Those, mostly from the Anti-Coup Alliance, who see the referendum as illegitimate and its results and turnout figures as rigged. The MB has for instance claimed that the turnout was only around 10%, rather than the 36% or so from official preliminary results.

The first and the last position clearly appear to be out of touch with reality. Caution would lead one to side with the skeptical view, like the above article, but the pragmatic argument is also worth noting. Even if unreliable as a test of where popular opinion stands, it is pretty evident that there are many Egyptians who back the current state of affairs, just as it is pretty evident that there many who are not happy about it. The combination of repression and outright electoral fraud (in the case of not allowing people to campaign as they wish if not in the polling stations and vote counting rooms) should lead us to dismiss this referendum as a reliable indicator of anything but the regime's ability to put mobilize a sizable constituency and put on a show of self-legitimizing pageantry.

Column: It's the process

My latest piece for al-Masri al-Youm is up — I opine on the "constitution first" debate:

The "Constitution First" debate would never have emerged had the referendum and its aftermath not been sloppily handled, most notably with the establishment of a constitutional declaration (rather than an amended constitution) that went way beyond the nine articles the public had approved. To be quite frank, I find it unbelievable that the constitutional committee headed by Tareq al-Bishri and in which many senior judges participated backed such a sloppy process, even in extraordinary times. The initiatives by ElBaradei and Sheikh al-Azhar are in many respects now repairing the damage created by their unnecessary, avoidable mess.

District-level Egypt referendum results



This a map of the results of the 19 March 2011 referendum by district. Some of the most populated governorates and districts of Egypt are the smallest, and these are the ones which tended to vote the most no. I put the file on Prezi so that you can zoom in and see the smaller districts easily. More maps and results will be available soon.
Mapping Egypt's referendum

As I've said before, Egyptians voted yes or no for different reasons (a flaw in the design of the referendum), but even so I thought it'd be interesting to draw up a US-style red vs. blue map showing the trends across Egypt's 29 governorates. The most red governorates are those with the highest percentage of "yes" votes, the more blueish ones (actually purple, since the lowest "yes" vote was around 60% in Cairo governorate) have more "no" votes.

What does this tell us? Basically, that governorates with a large urban population (Cairo, Alexandria, Giza, Assiut) had a higher proportions of "no" votes, as did those sparsely populated governorates that have a large proportion of tourism workers (Red Sea, South Sinai, Luxor). Areas where tribes count more tended to have a high "yes" vote (Wadi Gedid, Marsa Matruh, North Sinai). I've done more number-crunching extrapolating from census figures to guestimate participation by governorate, but I'll put that information up later this week. 

One caveat: the allegations of fraud and Copts being barred from voting in Qena governorate really need to be investigated to know whether the result for that governorate can be taken as representative.

The results are in

18 million voted, 14 million (77%) said "yes" and 4 million said "no."

It's a mandate for the military to some extent, but the minority is substantial enough to make it clear consensus is not overwhelming — even if there were different reasons for voting yes or no.

One nice aspect of this is that the commission overseeing the referendum is taking critical questions from the press, explaining where there was fraud, assuring that perpetrators will be punished (2-5 years in prison). That's pretty unprecedented, previously the government just ignored allegations of fraud.

My analysis what is problematic with the referendum still stands, and we'll have to wait to see if the case for massive fraud can convincingly be made. Overall, though, I suspect that this referendum, is in its conduct, was generally a step forward for Egypt.

Two important question on Egypt's referendum

Update: The results are in, 77% yes — more here.

While we wait for the results to be announced, it's worth taking stock of two aspects of yesterday's referendum — quite aside from the massive participation that is worth celebrating. But I'd like to explore some aspects of the referendum that I perhaps overlooked in my previous long post (I am sick and jet-lagged, so perhaps that omission can be forgiven) after some discussions I had today and looking through the comments on past posts.

1. Was the referendum fair?

I highlighted before that this was probably the fairest election Egypt has held in decades — from what I saw anyway. You did not appear to have the mass, widespread abuses of past polls — something that Jonathan Wright, with whom I was yesterday, also thought. Of course, it takes time for reports of fraud to spread. Some have surfaced, such as the claim that the ink is easily washable (although it appeared to be the same ink as past elections, where this was not so much of an issue). In some places ballots were not properly stamped, although this appeared to be more out of bad organization than malice. A report has emerged alleging that Boship Kirollos, a Coptic dignatary in Naga Hammadi, the site of the murder of seven Christians and a Muslim outside a church last January, said that Copts were prevented from voting because local officials feared they would choose no. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights details multiple infractions across the country. It's still too soon to see whether Egypt's civil society, as a whole, will see the referendum as fraudulent or not, and judge the fraud to have been perpetrated as part of an organized campaign by the regime as past elections and referenda were. Activists and tweeps are listing some fraud on Twitter under the #egyunfair hashtag.

There is a fundamental problem with how easy it is to vote multiple times, a problem that plagued previous polls. The phosphoric ink can be easily washed off, and there are no centralized databases of who voted, so people can vote multiple times at different polling stations. I'm not saying this happened yesterday, but the possibility is there and debating whether the referendum should have been held under such conditions is a legitimate question. There is a difficult problem that the voter lists are in dire need of overhaul, which is why voting took place only with a national ID card. I thought yesterday a good solution might, rather than expensive computers and a national online database, to have a system whereby voting officials can SMS the ID number of a voter to register it with a central database to check if he/she has voted before — before allowing the person to vote, the official would wait for an OK message from the central server. It would be relatively cheap to implement and use phones that everyone has (you would just need to give the officials credit and set up the database). In the end, the public's perception might simply be that the referendum was fair enough in times of national emergency.

2. Was the referendum framed correctly?

Perhaps the stronger argument is that the manner in which the referendum was held, even if fair, left much to be desired. In no particular order:

  • The commission that drafted the amendments, despite being headed by the respected jurist Tariq al-Bishri, came under criticism for its composition and for some of the amendments it proposed, notably on the national requirements of presidential candidates.
  • Eager to move things along, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces left little time for any campaigning (and actively discouraged the no campaigning) or for a national debate on the choice presented to be had. Many expected the referendum to be postponed until a few days ago. This allowed Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood and regime elements to spread disinformation, such as that at stake was Article 2 of the constitution, which makes Sharia the basis of legislation in Egypt. The military could have allowed an extra week or two, but appeared to be moving fast because the no sentiment was rising in the media.
  • More generally, the MB and Salafists' objective alliance with the military left a sour taste in many's mouths. It was not illegal as such, but smacked of behind-the-scenes deal-making.
  • As one friend put it, the choice presented in the referendum was in some sense between no and no: "no to the current constitution but we'll amend it and then see about a new one", or "no to the current constitution even if amended." A better choice might have been between, "yes to the current constitution if it's amended" and "no to an amended constitution, let's start over with a new one." Many voters were understandably confused about what they were voting for, and there were multiple reasons to vote no and multiple reasons to vote yes — which is why you can't just say the noes were "anti-army" or "reformists". It's more complicated than that.
  • The post-referendum process is too uncertain: why elect a parliament rather than a president constituent assembly, why elect a Shura Council that's likely to be abolished, why have elections in one order rather than another, etc. The military's announced plan to have parliamentary elections in June is again too abrupt, why not have both elections in mid-September?

All this being said — I'm not hedging my bets here, just reflecting how difficult this question is — many of the recent referenda in the EU (Lisbon, Maastricht, Nice, etc.) have also had their ridiculous side, especially when one has to read a phonebook of legalese to (not) understand what one is voting on. I'm not about to hold Egypt to a higher standard than Europe. Drafting an entirely new constitution could have been a process that takes too long, particularly with the army in charge in the interim. There is something positive about getting back to civilian rule as quickly as possible. 

Yet, even so, this could have been done better. I'm not inclined to think that the army has an elaborate secret plan here, what it reflects is a slapdash, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach and, perhaps most crucially, concern about moving fast to avoid having divergent trends emerge within the military on how to proceed. 

25 million voted in Egypt yesterday

It's been announced that 25 million Egyptians, or over 60% of eligible voters, participated in yesterday's referendum on constitutional amendments. That's an astounding figure — only 6 million were said to have voted in the parliamentary elections last November. It also means the announcement of the final results could take longer than expected, although a press conference is expected any minute now. Whatever the outcome, that figure is a very positive sign of the public's confidence that a better Egypt is being forged.

Follow early results on al-Ahram's liveblog: Early results of Egypt referendum updated as they come in (so far, it looks like a good lead for the yeses)

Also, Moftasa makes an important point here: Data from referendum will draw a new map of Egypt |

Update: It turns out 18 million voted. Still very respectable, with 14 million "yes" and 4 million "no."

Some thoughts on Egypt's referendum

In Maadi, a #Jan25 youth activists greets the voters with sweets.

I went out for a few hours this morning and toured various areas south of Cairo — Maadi, Helwan and villages beyond it — to see how things were taking place at polling stations. Whether in urban areas or in rural ones, I have to say I've never seen an Egyptian election as cleanly run and where a mood of enthusiastic civism dominated. Whether people voted yes or no, there was a calm dialogue, confidence and pride in being able to vote freely for the first time. This alone is a major achievement considering that only three or four months ago, Egypt held one of the most fraudulent election in its history. Even if there are reports of irregularities elsewhere, Egyptians can take pride in their newfound civism and take the debate over how to vote in the referendum as evidence of a healthy national debate.

Were I Egyptian, I'm not sure how I would vote. Most of my friends are voting no, and there are good reasons to do so. The constitutional committee was appointed hastily and its composition was problematic, some of the revised amendments — notably on nationality requirements — stink of chauvinism, and the army has been clumsy in advocating for a yes vote and intimidating the no campaign. Yet, at the same time, I can understand the yes vote: a desire to move quickly so that the army returns to the barracks, political stability is more quickly restored and that the mandate for transition is clear (this is basically what the referendum is really about — granting a mandate to the army's transition blueprint).  Although I think an entirely new constitution would be desirable, the no campaign has not explained who would write it or who would elect them. Moreover, the current idea for the transition is for the next president and parliament to be in charge of writing a new constitution, which seems like a more democratic process: an elected parliament will be more representative, after all, than an appointed committee to draft a constitution. I'm not sure I buy the argument that moving too fast benefits the NDP and Muslim Brotherhood, either — this seems undemocratic, an election is an election.

In the countryside, Hossam voted no.In this sense there a whiff of elitism about the no campaign. Many I speak to deride poorer people, which tend to want to vote yes (largely because of concern over stability and the economy) although I did meet a "no" voter who said he had been pro-Mubarak and didn't even want to hear about the constitution until the security and economic situation is resolved. Many in the middle class, and especially upper middle class, appear to want to vote no. People in the countryside generally lean yes. Some of the no vote is rooted in a "fear of the masses" that sees them as easily fooled, bribed, or intimidated into voting yes, and liable to re-elect the NDP or the MB in the forthcoming parliamentary elections. But there are many exceptions to all these generalizations, of course, and among the low-education, low-income people I spoke to I heard both simplistic and sophisticated arguments for both cases — as well as disarming honesty from a young yes voter who just said he didn't really understand what he was voting for.

There is one aspect of the yes campaign that troubles me, beyond some of the army's recent actions. Former NDP but especially Muslim Brotherhood forces on the local level have been vigorously putting out a pro-yes message. In some places, people felt intimidated by the groups the MB mobilized. In Mansoura, a Salafi sheikh said that voting no was against God's will. I find that kind of populism repulsive, but I'm not sure it's illegal. Unfortunately that's part of the package of democracy. More worrying is what happened to Mohamed ElBaradei when he went to vote:

CAIRO—Hundreds of Islamists hurled stones and shoes at Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular contender for Egypt's presidency, as he went to cast his ballot in Cairo in a referendum on Saturday, an AFP reporter said.

"We don't want you," they shouted, throwing stones, shoes and water at the former UN nuclear watchdog chief as he tried to vote, five weeks after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak in the wake of mass protests.

"He lives in the United States and wants to rule us, it's out of the question," one of them said.

"We don't want an American agent," said another.

ElBaradei, who was hit in the back by a stone, was forced to retreat to his car and leave.

That's disgusting, and these people should be arrested and prosecuted as any group attacking another is. They disgrace their country on an otherwise great day. And the political leadership — and that includes Muslim Brothers — should take responsibility for creating the political climate in which such an attack takes place. Salafists in particular present one of the most potent threats to Egypt's budding democracy — their intolerance and brutal tactics are the equivalent of the far-right in Europe or the Islamist movements in Pakistan. They — these former allies of the Mubarak regime — should be fought whenever possible. But it should be remembered that this was not the attitude prevalent in other places, where a spirit of tolerance and civic duty appeared to be the norm.

Update: It's not 100% clear whether the crowd that attacked ElBaradei could be labeled as "Salafist" — some video evidence suggests it's an ordinary mix of people. Just want to make sure Salafists don't get the whole blame for this — although I stand by my feeling that this minority current of Egyptian society represents a nasty, virulent and anti-democratic ideology.

The "noes" ask the army for room
Below is the English version of a letter circulating, drafted by a coalition of groups advocating a "no" vote in tomorrow's constitutional referendum. Earlier this week the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces threatened that any protests on referendum day would be dealt with under anti-looting legislation, which carries the possibility of the death penalty.

To: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces:

On the occasion of the upcoming referendum on the constitutional amendments scheduled for Saturday March 19, 2011, we would like to address your efforts to push the wheel of democracy forward and your role in protecting Egyptian citizens and safeguarding the freedom of expression in this critical phase of Egyptian history.

We the undersigned do not agree to the proposed constitutional amendments. Based on this position and our keenness that the referendum be conducted democratically in an environment that permits opposing opinions, we shall be working during this period leading up to the day of the referendum, to encourage Egyptian citizens to participate in the referendum. We shall be campaigning and advocating our position, which is the refusal of the constitutional amendments.

In order to guarantee the democratic process and safeguard the freedom of expression and opinion, which are guaranteed by the law, we request that the Supreme Council direct the competent authorities responsible for maintaining safety and security on referendum day not to threaten or attack our representatives and to provide them with appropriate protection. 

We hereby confirm that we shall fully comply with the limitations set out in the law during the campaigning that we shall be conducting 

May God grant us success for the benefit of our country, which is our common concern.

  • Boulaq Youth Coalition
  • Front for Protection of the Revolution's Legitimacy
  • Center for Egyptian Women's Rights
  • Union of Revolution Youth
  • Doctors of Tahrir Field Hospital
  • Socialist Renewal Current
  • National Front for Democracy and Justice
  • Popular Movement for Democracy
  • Egyptian Movement for Transitional Justice
  • Socialist Democratic Party
  • Popular Campaign for Support of El Bardei
  • People's Committees for Protection of the Revolution
  • People's Committee for a New Constitution
  • Executive Council for Defending the Legitimacy of the Revolution
  • The Civil Group for Refusing the Egyptian Parliament
  • The Civil Group for Monitoring the Police
  • Egyptian Foundation for Family Development
  • Eid Wahda (One Hand)
  • Amir Salem
  • Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution
  • Front for Tahrir Revolutionaries
  • Bent El Reif Organization in Qena
  • Gamila Ismail
  • George Ishak
  • January 25th Movement
  • April 6th Movement
  • Revolutionary Enlightenment Movement
  • The Free Egyptian Movement
  • Citizenship for All Movement
  • Renaissance and Change Movement
  • Hemaya Movement
  • Justice and Freedom Movement
  • Popular Alliance Party
  • Youth of the Revolution Party
  • Campaign to support El Baradei and the Demands for Change
  • Kefaya
  • Amr Hamzawy
  • Dostour 2011 Group
  • Working Group for the Lotus Revolution
  • Madarak Center for the Right to Knowledge
  • Masr El Mutanawera
  • New Woman Foundation
  • Dream of Democracy Foundation
  • Wael Nawara, Secretary General, Al Ghad Party
  • Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights
  • Al Shihab Foundation for Sustainable Progress and Development
  • The Arab Program for Human Rights Activists 

Referendum around the corner

Well, the first milestone of Egypt's democratic transition will take place (we think) the day after tomorrow. The country is in an uproar over the referendum on constitutional amendments, with debates breaking out everywhere -- on the street, in doctors' waiting rooms, on Facebook --between those who will vote "yes" and those who will say "no." Young people are waiting in round-the-block lines to get into lectures about the amendments (!). 

(Ruby's 2004 song "Whenever I Tell Him Yes." It's jokingly circulating on Facebook as "the referendum song.")

I've laid out the arguments against the amendments already. So today I'll translate a little from a letter by professor and activist Leila Soueif, who says she is going to vote yes because she want to make sure the army is in power for the shortest possible time period, and she fears the consequences of the army's ongoing violence against citizens.

Soueif says that the army will never support "root change" and that the best way to move forward is to elect a parliament soon. She says that one shouldn't over-estimate the gains that the NDP and the Brotherhood will make in parliamentary elections if they are held in two months, arguing that "those who raise these fears ignore the difference between elections in which participation was very weak and elections in which participation will be much higher."  

"In the absence of a parliament," writes Soueif, "It's impossible to imagine that there will be amendments to the Universities Law, or the Judicial Powers Law, or the Administrative Prosecutor Law, or the Associations law, or the Labour law or the dozens of laws that require amendments as a first step towards social change..."

However the vote goes (and I do hope that it is at least generally organized and clean), it's been fascinating to watch this debate explode, and to see the level of political awareness and curiosity after so many years of cynicism and resignation. It strikes me that there is quite a bit of discomfort not just with challenges to authority but with differences of opinion in Egyptian society today, and part of the road ahead is learning to publicly, forcefully but civilly disagree. Unfortunately, the army is proving that it doesn't really get democracy and public debate by issuing an order that nobody discuss the referendum for the next 48 hours. 

(Thanks for great links to Hossam and Mandouza)