Egypt’s restoration referendum
I observed the Egyptian constitutional referendum yesterday and the day before in Minya governorate, whose provincial capital lies about 245 kilometers south of Cairo. The referendum was essentially a plebiscite on the July 3 removal of President Morsi by General Abdel Fattah al Sisi and the subsequent effort to restore the military to power behind the fig leaf of a civilian government.
My partner, translator and I visited about 30 polling stations in perhaps 15 polling centers as far south as Malawi and as far north as Bani Mazar. This is a poor, mostly agricultural part of Egypt that largely supported the Mubarak regime and has suffered hard times since. Many apartments lie unfinished or vacant. Churches as well as mosques dot the landscape. The rutted roads swirl with three-wheeled “took took” taxis driven by pre-adolescents, minibuses packed to the gills, donkeys hauling great mounds of greens, children playing in the dust as well as an abundance of cars and trucks, motocycles and bicycles. Officially, Egypt drives on the right, like the US. But that only applies when it is convenient–if you feel you need to be on the left, no one is going to stop you from driving there in Minya governorate. The only moving thing that does what you expect is the Nile, which flows calmly through the turmoil, its banks heaped with trash.
The polling was an orderly process everywhere we went. Within the walls of heavily guarded schools, election officials handed out slips telling people at which polling station they were registered. After queuing relatively briefly, a voter presented her identification card, an official found her name on a list and filled out the last two digits of her identification number, the voter signed her name (or in about 10-20% of cases used a thumbprint) to the register, and the official signed his name. Then either the official, or more often the presiding judge, handed the voter a validated ballot, which she marked and deposited in a transluscent plastic ballot box. At the end of the second 12-hour day, the boxes were unsealed, the ballots dumped out, sorted as “yes,” “no,” and “invalid,” then counted and the count reconciled with the number of ballots used. The results were posted on the door of the polling center, then ballots and reconciliation report boxed up for transport to Cairo by the presiding judge.
Judges preside over polling stations in Egypt. Dressed significantly better than everyone else in the room–usually in dark business suit, tie and white shirt–they exert, or sometimes radiate, authority without much visible effort. They barely seem to notice the filthy terrazzo floors, the bare fluorescent bulbs, the gouged wooden school desks or the decrepit teachers’ desks. The many police and army officers milling about generally stayed outside the polling stations, though they would occasionally wander in to accompany us, help an elderly person or to mange the queue. Voting booths were often not set up for maximum privacy, fingers were not inked sufficiently, ballots were not folded before being deposited in the boxes. The judges generally ignored these technical “violations,” but there was no sense of systematic bias or intimidation.
We visited one polling center set up to accommodate wafideen, people living Minya but registered to vote elsewhere. A traveling sports steam was taking a group photo when we arrived. The procedure there included a check with the central ID data base in Cairo to ensure the person was actually registered, but there was little beside the inadequate inking of fingers to prevent them from running out to their home district to vote again. It’s the same as the US problem with people registered in two states. Much talked about, little practiced.
The people voting were of one mind: they want stability, security and most of all an improved economy. They are proud of Egypt. They disliked ousted President Morsi but were much more focused on their new hero: General Sisi. The enthusiasm for him burst out as we exited one polling center: “the people and the army are one hand” an overly enthusiastic but not hostile crowd flashing victory signs chanted to the international observers, obviously wanting us to take home the message. A few ballots were marred with pro-Sisi scribbles. One woman told us the Egyptian army was the best in the world. The voters we saw skewed to the elderly, but we met a few youth group election observers who were enthusiastic supporters of the new constitution.
The results in Minya were unequivocal: 97% “yes” in the two polling stations where we watched the closing, with a turnout of 54%. I have no doubt whatsoever about the accuracy of these numbers. But what they mean, or what they will mean when we hear results for the country as a whole, is not at all clear. Judging from the rumors I’ve heard, there is no chance turnout will be over 50% and likely a good deal under, though perhaps above the mark for Morsi’s 2012 constitution. So something less than half the country has approved the coup and its aftermath. The other half or more includes people unalterably opposed to the new constitution, as well as some who are indifferent.
What the referendum means for Egypt is not yet clear. More on that in a coming post.