Originally published in The Daily Star (Lebanon), 18 December 2012
Outside a bicycle tire shop in the backstreets of Alexandria, the political divisions which are prising Egypt apart were being played out for all to see.
Handing over his cash, a customer made his views about the current political situation known. “What has Mohamed Morsi ever done for you?” he asked the owner of the tire shop.
“Well what did Hosni Mubarak do for you?” retorted the shopkeeper, before adding that life under Egypt’s former dictator was hardly any better than it is now.
As unofficial results from the first round of Egypt’s constitutional referendum emerged over the weekend, polling data suggests a narrow majority in favour of endorsing the country’s controversial national charter.
A second ballot will be held on Saturday, though with much of the voting due to take place in rural areas more likely to deliver the “yes” desired by Egypt’s Islamists, the result seems inevitable.
But observers are not expecting the febrile political atmosphere to cool any time soon.
Opponents of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s man at the top, were incensed that the vote was even taking place.
They say the constitution was rammed towards a referendum in a manner which would have made Mubarak blush, and that the Islamist-dominated assembly which drafted it has effectively created the blueprint for an Iran-on-the-Nile.
The Brotherhood for its part, along with their fundamentalist allies in the ultra-orthodox Nour Party, believes it had an electoral mandate to enshrine Islamic principles in the national charter.
With Egypt’s main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front (NSF), calling for mass protests against the constitution today [TUES], the stage seems set for further confrontations.
For many in this devoutly Muslim country, it is not political Islam in itself which is stirring tensions, but the way they believe its practitioners are mimicking the autocratic legacy of Hosni Mubarak.
Yet the signs of sectarian strife keep bobbing up. In Banha, a city north of Cairo in the Nile Delta, a giant banner was last week hanging close to the train station proclaiming “The constitution protects sharia” – an indication of how Islam has been used by some clerics to polarise opinion across Egypt.
Further north in Alexandria, clashes broke out on Friday after a radical sheikh suggested during midday prayers that anyone who voted no the constitution was a kufar.
If any city represents how influential religion has become in shaping Egypt’s political discourse, it is here – the place which gave birth to Egypt’s Nour Party, the country’s main Salafi organisation.
Once contemptuous of party politics, Egypt’s Salafis had a key role drafting the new constitution by virtue of their strong showing in last year’s parliamentary election. They, along with the Brotherhood, believed they had an electoral mandate to mould the constitution in their likeness.
According to Yusri Hamad, a top Nour Party official, the leaders of Egypt’s opposition are only smarting because the country’s Islamists are now in the ascendency. “Mohamed el-Baradei wants everything done his own way,” he said. “If this isn’t done he won’t agree with it.
He rejected accusations that the new constitution was overly Islamic, and said that Egyptians were free to accept or reject it as they please. “Mohamed el-Baradei and his allies want to protest even if the people say yes”
But many opposition figures say continued protests are only necessary because the entire drafting process has been illegitimate.
Turnout for Saturday’s poll was miserable. Although unofficial tallies suggested the referendum was approved by around 57 per cent of those who voted, only a third of the electorate reportedly cast their ballots.
Many of them were boycotting the poll, heeding the calls of revolutionaries who have registered their distaste for the Brotherhood’s high-handed techniques by abstaining from the process. Others presumably could not be bothered, or were unable to vote due to financial or practical constraints.
Either way, a sizeable number of Egyptians would appear to feel disenfranchised by a revolution that has now been commandeered by the nation’s Islamists.
Many of them would be considered natural foes of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation committed to the proselytization of Islam. In a tea house in Alexandria, a Christian man told the Daily Star he thought Egypt’s Islamists would eventually expel non-Muslims from the country.
“Where is the freedom and justice now?” he asked, parodying the name of the Brotherhood’s political wing.
But others are simply unimpressed by the way in which the Brotherhood and Nour Party have conducted themselves since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Yasir Mahmoud Ahmed, owner of the tire shop in Alexandria, said although he voted for Mohamed Morsi during the presidential elections in August, he said “no” to the constitution over the weekend because he felt he had been “lied to” by the political establishment.
“The Muslim Brotherhood say that voting yes is for God and that voting no means you will go to hell,” he added.