CAIRO — At the polling station in the impoverished Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, the contradiction that is Egypt’s democratic transition played out Tuesday. Women, children in hand, celebrated their votes in the country’s referendum on a new constitution with celebratory ululation, while a few feet away a young man sat with his head bowed in fear after military personnel beat him.
Police on the scene said soldiers had struck the man because he’d insulted the military, whose generals now serve as the country’s de facto rulers and had called on voters to endorse the document. The proposed constitution calls for freedom of expression, but the man said he was beaten “because I expressed my opinion.”
Tuesday was the first of two days of balloting on the nation’s newest proposed charter, but the vote lacked the suspense of previous elections held in the three years since the Arab Spring toppled longtime President Hosni Mubarak. When balloting ends Wednesday, the constitution is expected to have passed with overwhelming support.
Opponents couldn’t call for voters to say no and couldn’t insult the military without fear of arrest in a country where many think that under the newest government, democratic processes have become a means to codify the return of a police state that millions rose up against when they forced Mubarak from office.
Many called the vote a referendum on the political future of Egypt’s strongman, Defense Minister Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who’s considered the top contender in the still-undeclared presidential elections. The military hailed the vote, with army spokesman Ahmad Mohamed Ali saying the referendum “confirms Egyptians are the first free population in recorded history.”
Throughout the day Tuesday, Egyptians at the polling stations were joyful in their endorsement of the 247-article document. Often they parroted the points that had been made in hours of commentary on state television and radio on why the constitution should be approved: It would bring stability, crush the last vestiges of the Muslim Brotherhood and insure the country against terrorism. Many cited the one-year rule of President Mohammed Morsi as the reason for their vote.
“What the Muslim Brotherhood did (during Morsi’s year in office) is what pushed me to vote yes for this constitution. I want the country to move on. I want to find a job,” Mohammed Ali, 31, a security guard, said while voting in Imbaba.
That morning an explosion had shaken a courthouse a few blocks away, and security remained tight, and visible, through the day. Thousands of armed police officers and soldiers were stationed around polling stations, and military helicopters buzzed overhead.
Ousted President Mubarak, current military-named President Adly Mansour and the head of the Coptic Church, Pope Tawadros II, were among those who voted yes.
Voting no wasn’t an option, many said. Some feared arrest; others said that since the ousting of Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected leader, their votes didn’t matter. On Monday, at least seven members of the Strong Egypt Party – founded by a onetime presidential candidate and former Muslim Brotherhood member, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh – were arrested for possessing posters that urged a “no” vote.
In the weeks since the constitutional assembly completed work on the document Dec. 1, the government has locked up thousands of opponents, protesters and journalists. Those arrested report that they’ve been tortured and forced to appear before judges who are carrying out the government’s interests. In addition, unprecedented violence has erupted between Morsi supporters and government forces.
“We voted five times before, and what happened?” one man asked just outside the supermarket he owns, which on Tuesday was also a polling station. He didn’t give his name.
A McClatchy reporter who visited five polling stations could find no one who’d admit to having voted “no,” suggesting that the “yes” vote will be overwhelming.
For the government, the more important figure may be turnout. The Muslim Brotherhood and several of the advocates who led the anti-Mubarak protests in 2011 had called for boycotting the referendum, and a low turnout would weaken the government’s claims that approval will mean ratification of all that the military has done since it toppled Morsi on July 3.
With far fewer local and international monitors for Tuesday’s voting, it will be harder to know for certain that the outcome reflects legitimate balloting. At several polling stations, McClatchy didn’t see a single observer.
The nation’s exhaustion with promises of change was perhaps most evident at the once-iconic Tahrir Square, where, beginning three years ago Jan. 25, millions gathered for 18 days, demanding Mubarak’s ouster and an end to the military’s heavy hand in government. On Tuesday, the square was peppered with posters depicting el-Sissi and billboards urging voters to say “yes” to the new constitution.
“Yes, yes to the constitution,” voters in the square chanted as cars passed by.
Back at Imbaba, a police officer said he’d arrested the unruly voter but suggested that he’d let him go.
“You will see what freedom in Egypt looks like,” the officer explained sarcastically.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @AminaIsmail, @nancyayoussef