Ballot-box politics: What has pushed Egypt’s opposition to vote ‘no’?

Thirty-three-year-old human rights lawyer Mahienour El-Massry could not make up her mind about what to do in the referendum on the new constitutional amendments. She was torn between boycotting and voting “no.”

Then she found out that she had been barred from participating due to her previous arrest during a demonstration, even though she had no formal charges that should prevent her from voting.

She now believes that the amendments “are the death knell for the January revolution” of 2011, and that a “yes” or “no” vote would amount to the same thing. Yet she had been leaning toward voting “no.” It would be an “action and a message that we are still alive.”

Massry tells Mada Masr that she would usually be inclined to boycott, but this time the question is simple. It is not a choice between people, but an answer to a question: “Do you think that this should happen or not? There is no other answer,” she says.

I was much less conflicted than Massry about the three-day vote, which started on Saturday. I was annoyed by the banners filling the streets in support of the amendments and calling for a massive turnout. I decided from the start to boycott. To put it simply, I just didn’t really care.

Although the details of the amendments were unclear until they received final approval by the Parliament last Tuesday, banners had long since flooded Cairo’s main streets and those of other governorates, urging citizens to “do the right thing”: “Together for the constitutional amendments,” “Go out and participate for our country,” “Participation is a responsibility. Do your part” and “Constitutional amendments for a better future for Egypt.”

According to a report published by Mada Masr last week, many kiosk, cafe and shop owners were coerced into putting them up.

Parliamentary debate on the amendments, which would allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030, expand executive power over the judiciary, and allow the military to intervene in politics to “protect the civilized nature of the state,” ended Tuesday after a few weeks of discussion. On Wednesday, one day after Parliament’s approval, the National Elections Commission announced that voting would begin on Friday for Egyptian citizens residing abroad, and on Saturday in Egypt.

In contrast with previous elections and referendums, within the opposition the voices of those calling for a “no” vote have been louder than those calling for a boycott. Many agree with Massry’s sentiment that the amendments would mark the end of the January 25 revolution.

While some have decided to vote “no” in order to hold onto a sliver of hope — a symbol of a revolutionary bloc that still lives and breathes — for others the matter is less clear.

In a Facebook post shared by thousands, Khaled Fahmy, a professor of Modern Arab Studies at the UK’s Cambridge University,  urged people to participate and vote “no,” arguing that the amendments would change “the entire nature of the republican regime.”

One 38-year-old engineer living in Cairo tells Mada Masr on condition of anonymity that voting “no” was essential because of what happened during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. For her, a lesson learned in 2011 was that “we must not surrender to the idea that authoritarian rulers can rule forever.”

“People in a comfortable position who believe that maintaining the status quo is the path to stability must question that in light of what happened in 2011, and what is currently happening in Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan,” says the engineer.

She adds that neutrality is not an option when so many are showing hostility. “People in the streets and on social media are speaking out against these amendments, and this must be demonstrated at the polls,” she says, pointing to the referendum for the 2012 Constitution under former President Mohamed Morsi, in which 36 percent of voters said “no,” according to the official results.

Mohamed Azmy, a 39-year-old human rights lawyer living in Washington DC, agrees that boycotting this referendum would have no impact: “I think boycotting has no benefits and actually brings us back to the pre-2006 status quo of political stagnation and indifference.” Voting against the amendments is an act of resistance because “even if they rig the vote, they will be annoyed that many of us said no.”

“The world does not care about us, as some people believe,” Azmy adds. “They will not care about a miserable people who don’t know how to resist.”

Waled Elzayat, a 37-year-old chef living in Milan, uncharacteristically decided not to boycott this time. “I boycotted all elections, including Sisi’s second presidential term and parliamentary elections, which resulted in a Parliament created by the intelligence services and a constitution that required a referendum. It’s true that the referendum violates the Constitution, but it is something concrete, so I am among those going out to vote ‘no.’ If it’s rigged we will go to the street and protest, but non-participation would be harmful.”

Massry believes there is “a small space for the people to go out, speak, debate and participate in politics, because it has been a while since we [opposition activists] have heard from or spoken to the people.” Some of the opposition has taken the political position of boycotting, she says, but “the affliction of indifference is very dangerous, as the people no longer feel they are part of the equation.”

Elham Eidarous, a political activist and member of the Civil Democratic Movement, an alliance of oppositional parties, explains why the movement called for a vote against the amendments. “Choosing to boycott makes it appear as though the opposition has been swept away from politics,” she says. “The challenge is to transform this disgust with and disinclination towards the political process into a positive rejection against the backdrop of procedural and security conditions prohibiting a public campaign against the amendments.”

On a personal level, Eidarous believes that voting “no” counters the authorities’ efforts to crush hope. A solid percentage of “no” votes could restore a degree of hope and confidence, “not only for the opposition, but for all citizens who feel the country has not died yet, and who don’t agree with this solution,” she says.

“I went out and said no — this is our last chance,” says Marwa, 37, who lives in Cairo and works as an HR consultant. “This is the last thing I did so I can say to my daughter that I did what I could. This referendum is the final nail in our coffin.” Explaining why she didn’t boycott, she says: “We must not repeat what our parents did in the 1990s when the same issue was raised, which resulted in Mubarak staying in power. This is a final act of resistance, a last breath, even if the amendments end up passing.”

When I found myself inside a polling station to cover the vote as a journalist, I did not rethink my flustered position but I somehow found myself voting “no.” I couldn’t pinpoint a clear or specific reason. Perhaps it was just to spite the “democratic” ceremony, with its celebrations, DJs and dancers around each station. Perhaps it was indeed a last act of resistance. Or perhaps — like Massry and Eidarous — I wanted to preserve some hope.

Hadeer El-Mahdawy 

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