CAIRO, Egypt — In two days, school teacher Mona Awad will go to the polling station and vote in favor of Egypt’s new constitution in a nationwide referendum.
The 41-year-old considers herself well-informed about the constitution — though she admits she hasn’t read it — and has no doubt that it will pass.
“Everyone I know is voting yes. And if people are thinking of voting no, then they just won’t vote,” she said. ‘“We just want it to pass already so we can start getting on with life here.”
Egypt’s government has prepared for the January 14-15 vote on the constitution through a well-funded and aggressive campaign to encourage voters to “Vote Yes.” Across Cairo, billboards have been erected that urge Egyptians to come out and vote in favor of the constitution — and if people needed further convincing the billboards are signed by the district judges that will be presiding over the polling stations. They’ve even released music videos replete with smiling children to get a yes vote from Egypt.
At the same time, there has been a crackdown on voices of dissent. The few political activists who attempted to urge the population to vote against the constitution were immediately arrested.
“The fraud, in the case of this vote, was committed long before the actual day of voting,” said one international elections monitor based in Egypt, who spoke on condition of anonymity because his organization had not authorized him to speak to the press. “The population has been told they have no choice but to vote yes, so let’s be honest, this isn’t really what anyone in the West would consider a democratic vote.”
The monitor said he believed opportunities were rife for voter fraud and elections tampering during the two days of voting. Egypt’s elections authority has released confusing, and often contradictory, messages about the voting process. An announcement that some voters would be able to vote outside of their districts was misconstrued as a message that any Egyptian would be able to vote in any district, rather than in those previously designated to them. Only a small group of people has actually been pre-approved to vote in a district other than their hometown, and those voters will have to use a new computer system that has never been tested. And ballots will be left sitting in courtrooms and warehouses overnight during the two days of voting on January 14-15, giving ample opportunity for those hoping to attack or tamper with the ballot.
“I think on the day of the actual vote, we are going to see absolute chaos. People will be yelling at judges that they want to vote in the polling station closest to their houses — rather than the one they are assigned, and this whole computer system can go belly-up,” the monitor said. “It could just be anarchy.”
Elections monitors, he added, had been carefully pre-selected. While dozens of groups will be monitoring the vote on the day of the referendum, many more were disqualified by the Supreme Elections Committee (SEC). Last month, the SEC and an organization representing Egyptian judges announced that they had licensed 59 organizations to monitor the referendum, though they added that judges and organizations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood were barred from playing any role.
The U.S. continues to frame its criticism of Egypt on the premise that the country is developing on a democratic path, but last week State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. was deeply concerned about “the current climate for freedom of assembly and expression in Egypt.”
Psaki said the State Department shared the concerns of the US-based Carter Center, which in the past has monitored Egyptian elections and last week released a statement voicing alarm at the “polarized environment and the narrowed political space” in Egypt and the “lack of an inclusive process for drafting and publicly debating” in the new constitution.
“There is a will by the interim Egyptian government to make it easy for people to vote and to encourage them to vote”, said Alessandro Parziale, the Egypt field office director for the Carter Center. “But there needs to be a major effort made to clarify the voting process and work towards a more inclusive process overall.”
Among Egyptians interviewed by BuzzFeed, there was a widespread consensus that the constitution would pass. Several said they were frightened to vote no, or even abstain from voting on the constitution.
“I think I might like to vote no, but I would never actually do this,” said one downtown shopkeeper, who would only be quoted off-record because he said he was afraid to publicly state that he was even considering voting against the constitution. “If I voted no, they would put my name on some list, they would declare I was Muslim Brotherhood, maybe they would even arrest me. Many people think this way.”
The question, said many, was how large of a voter turnout Egyptian officials reported. The larger the number of people who vote to back the referendum, the more of a mandate it will give Egypt’s army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to run for president. Over the past few weeks, Sisi and those close to him have dropped hints that he is preparing for a presidential run by brushing up on his economic theories and political strategy.
On Saturday, Sisi gave a speech to a symposium of the Egyptian Armed Forces which confirmed that he would run for president if given “a mandate.”
“If I run for the presidency, it must be by the request of the people and with a mandate from my army,” Sisi said, according to Egypt’s state-run news agency. “When Egyptians say something, we obey and I will never turn my back on Egypt.”
His remarks were seen as the strongest call to date for Egyptians to vote in the constitutional referendum.
Nasser Amin, a human rights lawyer and one of the drafters of the constitution, said that it wasn’t enough for the referendum to pass, it had to pass in significantly larger numbers than the previous two constitutions.
“That will be the sign that a mandate has been given to put aside everything of the last two years and to set about to create a more stable Egypt,” said Amin.
That stability, he added, will only happen after the vote.