Egypt's referendum a vote on Morsi as well as the constitution

As Egyptians vote today in a referendum on a controversial draft constitution, the debate is dominated by President Mohamed Morsi's actions, not the document. 

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptians wait to vote in Cairo next to a defaced poster of President Mohamed Morsi.

Egyptians made yet another trip to the polls today to vote on a controversial constitution that has deeply polarized the nation, as the opposition warned of fraud.

For many, it was not just a vote on the merits of the document, but a judgment on the performance of President Mohamed Morsi, whose recent decisions to consolidate his power and rush the constitution to a vote ignited public anger and widespread protests. 

But a fear that rejecting the draft constitution would prolong the instability that has roiled Egypt overshadowed the burgeoning frustration with the president and opposition to the constitution.

"Egyptians will say yes, but in their hearts they want to say no," says Youssef Amin as he waits outside a polling center in Matareya, a working-class district on the northern edge of Cairo.

Since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, many Egyptians have grown weary of the sustained political instability and unrest on the streets that has kept Egypt's economy from recovering. 

Mr. Amin works in the tourism industry, which has been hit hard as protests and violence dissuade tourists from visiting.  He opposes the constitution, but says he will vote for it anyway because he's afraid that defeating it would lead to even more instability.

"If I say no, it might take four years to get another constitution," he says. "We will go on and on and on like this." 

A referendum on Morsi

Egyptians waited to cast their ballots in long lines in many parts of the capital today. Nine other governates also voted today, while the rest of the 27 will vote on Dec. 22. Morsi divided the voting into two rounds, likely in an effort to deal with a shortage of judges willing to oversee the vote.

Their supervision is required by Egyptian law, but in protest of Morsi’s recent move to sideline the judiciary, thousands of judges refused to monitor the vote.

Egypt's main opposition coalition accused the Brotherhood of "attempted vote rigging" in a statement released today, and said it had documented multiple instances of irregularities, including the absence of judges to monitor the voting.  

Last month, Morsi declared himself and the constitution-writing committee off limits to challenges from the judiciary. He also sacked the public prosecutor, an executive interference in the judiciary that was prohibited by the old constitution, and appointed a new prosecutor.

He rescinded parts of his controversial decree last week, declaring that he no longer considered his actions immune from judicial review. But that was after he called a quick referendum on the constitution his party members rushed to finish, moving ahead without input from the non-Islamist members of the committee who had resigned in the weeks before, claiming their views were ignored.

 Anger spills out

Anger at Morsi spilled out of voters in Matareya, a tired and shabby neighborhood. They are not the elite liberals that the president's supporters sometimes portray the opposition as being in an attempt to cast Morsi's critics as out of sync with the mainstream.

"Morsi says one thing and then does the exact opposite," says taxi driver Yehia Ibrahim, who lives in the neighborhood and was waiting in line at the polls. "You see this mess Egypt is in? What has he done to fix it? Nothing. He made it worse. He has led us into a very dangerous situation now." 

Nearby, Mervat Ayoub, a middle-aged mother wearing a Dalmatian-print scarf to guard against the nippy weather, agreed. "Morsi hasn't done anything good. He's destroying the country," she said. The constitution was "for certain people, not all Egyptians," she said, gesturing to the cross tattoo on her hand. 

Essam Badie, who owns a shop near the presidential palace, said he would vote no "a thousand times" if he could. "There are many things I don't like in the constitution, but it's enough [to vote no] for the people who died in Ittihadiya and Tahrir," he says, referencing protests in Cairo's iconic central square and near the presidential palace last week.

Clashes erupted last week after the Muslim Brotherhood sent members to the presidential palace to push out opposition protesters staging a demonstration there. Brotherhood supporters captured and beat dozens of people, holding nearly 50 of them for about 15 hours and trying to extract confessions that they were paid by opposition leaders to protest and attack the Brotherhood.  Eleven people died. The Brotherhood claims most of them were its members and supporters. 

Yearning for stability

The stakes are high for Morsi. He issued multiple decrees in the past few weeks as he came under more pressure, only to retract or modify them a short time later. He and his aides have repeatedly painted the opposition as former Mubarak supporters and members of the liberal elite who don't represent the majority of Egyptians. If the constitution passes with a wide margin, it will allow the president to assert that he has a popular mandate. But if the people reject it, he will be left increasingly isolated and weakened. 

Analysts say he's counting on weary Egyptians’ desire for stability, as well as the mobilization capabilities of the Muslim Brotherhood, to ensure that the constitution passes. Opposition parties mulled a boycott until just days before the vote, when they finally announced they would urge their supporters to participate but vote against the constitution. They have far less capacity to mobilize voters than the Brotherhood, and the delay cost them much-needed time to get out the message.

There were plenty of voters in Matareya who planned to vote for the constitution. Many cited stability as the biggest factor in their support. Mohamed Mohamed Ali said he voted yes "because this generation that's coming up deserves a good future," he said, gesturing to his son. "If we say no, it will set Egypt back a year. The country needs to progress." 

Others expressed frustration with those who opposed the constitution, and especially opposition political leaders. "They oppose the constitution just because they oppose Morsi," says Naila Hamdy, who described herself as a housewife. "I've read the constitution and it's very good."

Even if some are unhappy with certain points, the constitution can be amended in the future, so it needn't be perfect right now, she says.

Gharib Mohsen, an elderly retiree, insists the number of articles in the constitution that Egyptians disagree over are very few, saying they can be dealt with later because the president promised he would amend controversial articles once a parliament is elected.

"This constitution paves the way for the People's Assembly to be elected, and stability will come back and foreign investment will return," he said. "The production wheel will turn, and the economy will improve. Those opposing the constitution are doing it for their own interests." 

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