Voting for Egypt’s constitution

Polling stations across Egypt seemed to be marred with irregularities – is no one in charge?

Egypt's opposition cried fraud in the first round of a divisive referendum on a new constitution [AFP]

Over the past year and a half, I have voted six times in Egypt: For the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces’ constitutional referendum, for the lower house of parliament elections and the run-off that followed, for upper house elections, and for presidential elections and that ensuing run off.

So when it came time to vote in a much anticipated referendum for a “post-revolutionary” constitution, I had much practice in Egyptian voting. I had learned that the first day of voting should be entirely avoided for its crowds, as should late hours of the second day when last-minute voters flock to the polls. My practice of voting in the early hours of the second of the two days has never failed me: I go to the voting centre, a nearby school, present my ID to officers standing at the gates, and proceed to my assigned room usually to find a negligible and fast-moving line. Timing has been important; it has meant the difference between standing in a line that snaked around the school fence for one or two hours and voting in minutes.

 Polls close in Egypt constitution referendum

Unlike past elections, this time I had the option of voting only on a single day rather than two due to the dearth of judges willing to oversee the elections. As rumours spread on crowded voting centres in the morning, I opted to go later in the day hoping that the crowds would have quelled. News of a two-hour extension, followed by an additional two-hour extension on the voting period was an early sign that the crowds had likely continued.

As I approached the school that night, I saw that that there was no line outside of the building and prematurely congratulated myself on my timing. As I approached the school though, it became clear that this election process was unlike past ones. I walked through the entrance of the door with no officers or soldiers in sight to check for my identification and confirm that I was assigned to vote at that centre. A large crowd filled the school’s grassy courtyard, standing in what was supposedly a line. Ripped papers were scattered throughout the yard, which I learned from the infuriated screams of a woman were the documents listing the names and identification numbers of voters assigned to the centre. Papers that were supposed to be in the possession of officials inside of the voting rooms so that names could be marked off as voters cast their ballots.

At first glance, the several men who walked around the yard indicated that the crowd consisted of voters and non-voters, as this voting centre is gender-segregated. I looked around to find the officers and soldiers, the ones typically checking identification cards at the door and organising a line outside of the school as not to crowd the voting centre and ensure a more orderly process, sitting aside. At the end of the courtyard, only two rooms were being used for the voting process, as opposed to at least six or seven rooms open over two days in past elections.

Some women, young and old, carrying children, had been standing for over five hours waiting to vote. Others walked in, took a glance around the chaotic scene, and left – unwilling or unable to spend that much time in line. The district’s women tried to calm the situation. Many patrolled the line, attempting to keep it orderly. Others asked voters to pull out their identification cards in anticipation of their turn. The single officer who stood at the door of the voting room often erupted in arguments with voters, who impatiently berated him for the disorganised and lengthy process. At times he gave up, migrating from his position to tell jokes or quiet crying babies. The voters often took over his position, controlling traffic into and out of the voting room. In the school’s courtyard, the women dominated.

As I sat in the grass, amid a pile of torn documents, to write this, a soldier approached to tell me that it is against the rules to use a laptop outside of a voting room. Taking cue from my fellow voters, I told the officer that I had never heard of the rule and continued to type. This Cairene voting centre makes several things all too clear: The Morsi government, in its failure to run orderly elections, is not in control. The officers and soldiers, who sat idly as people berated them or took over their roles in attempting to maintain a semblance of order, are not in control. The people are in control. As the judge, one of only two in this centre overseeing the elections, closed her voting room for a break, the impatient crowd erupted. Within minutes, the judge was seen running back into the room.

As a woman emerged from the voting room, complaining that voters were being prevented from placing their ballots directly into the boxes themselves, the crowd again erupted: “Invalid! Invalid!” The process indeed seems to carry few marks of legitimacy. While many who believe in the invalidity of the selection of the constitutional committee and drafting of the document came out to vote regardless, the Morsi government’s failure to create order in the midst of a judicial boycott has greatly undermined the process. In Alexandria, several branches were forced to close completely when judges decided at the final minute that they would not participate in the process. Despite rumours that judges were being paid extravagantly for their services in this round of elections, the lack of willing participants was beyond clear.

Democracy is not simply a matter of elections and majority-rule; it is perhaps more importantly a safeguarding of ideals of freedom and justice – the same ideals which inspired the January 25 Revolution and for which the revolutionaries continue to lobby. Many embittered revolutionaries will remain opposed to the current draft of the constitution, even if it is passed by popular vote, precisely because it is not written in the revolutionary spirit, for which many sacrificed and died, and without which Mr Morsi and dominating Islamists would have never had the opportunity to rule. That the voting process proceeded with so much opposition reveals a government unwilling to compromise or hear the demands of its people, especially the people who enabled it to come to power. A constitution that is illegitimate in the eyes of many activists has only been undermined further by a highly flawed voting process, regardless of the outcome of the vote.

Sarah Mousa graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs in 2010, and was a 2010-2011 Fulbright Scholar in Egypt.