When Egypt voted

I arrived in Cairo on my way to the UAE at 1am the morning after the referendum; I wish it had been a few hours earlier so I could have seen some of it. The pictures of queues of voters and stories of grandparents who have never voted etc. were indeed encouraging and a reminder of the general WTF going on in Egypt right now, a kind of pinch-yourself-he’s-still-gone feeling which I have had ever since Mubarak fell (Mubarak fell!) six weeks ago (six weeks ago!)

I don’t buy some of the main criticisms of the constitutional amendments passed, that they’re a road straight to Brotherhood domination or a military state or a return of the NDP. I would have voted against, but (as the amendments themselves are very keen to point out) no-one gives a camel’s ear what I think because I’m not Egyptian in the slightest. Yet I would have, for two reasons: firstly because the amendments, although not as godawful that some seem to be claiming, did not go far enough. At all. Nothing on the emergency law, not much on the electoral process, and nothing on that old chestnut, personal status, which often gets overlooked but is actually bloody important. They also had a xenophobic streak which I resented, particularly as I plan to run for public office in Egypt at some point. The second and vastly more important point was the way in which they were presented: lumped together in a neat little yes bundle with little explanation and a vast campaign claiming that they would bring stability without actually outlining what they would do. Before anyone starts thinking that this is a patronising criticism of Egyptian politics or its electorate, this is a common problem across the world with referenda: poor structuring means that a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer oversimplifies a whole mess of issues, and as with anything constitutional it’s difficult to explain them all. (I’m probably going to vote for AV because the Tories are against it, which is hardly better than voting yes for some ill-defined notion of stability.)

It’s easy to get misty-eyed about the winds of change blowing over the shifting sands of the land of pharaohs yada yada, and indeed I had to cough back a couple of smoggy tears when driving through Tahrir on Saturday night, and grinned so hard at a young soldier who gave me a handful of sunflower seeds that I suspect he may have let me through his checkpoint out of fear. But it’s important to remain critical. Last weekend could have gone better, both in the sense that ‘no’ could have won and that the whole thing could have been fairer. Free and fair is a common collocation when it comes to elections, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. 70% for ‘yes’ is, quite simply, suspicious. No-one could have envisaged this freedom a few months ago, sure; but right now the important thing is to make that freedom fair.

 

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