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'Egypt is greater than this.' That still remains to be seen

For many queuing at Cairo polling stations on Saturday in the first round of voting, the ballot was not strictly about the constitution.

After several weeks of political manoeuvring and protests, Egyptians are voting on a new constitution in a referendum that many hoped would be postponed. There have been only two weeks to consider the document, which was drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly.

But for many queuing at Cairo polling stations on Saturday in the first round of voting, the ballot was not strictly about the constitution. Many voted "yes" for stability, simply to end the unrest, or to express solidarity with their first democratically elected president. Others voted to fulfil a perceived religious duty.

Turnout seemed fairly strong, with voters waiting in line for several hours in many cases. Military personnel and policemen, in uniform and in plainclothes, were also present.

"I am satisfied with this constitution," said one veiled woman voter. "It's not perfect, but what is?" Another veiled woman was uninterested in the draft's particulars. "It's a good government," she said.

Several younger women, one of them Christian, disagreed, saying they planned to vote "no" because "mixing religion with politics is a disaster".

At a polling station in Abbasiyya, the defence ministry district, hundreds of women and very few men stood waiting. A group of Muslim and Christian women agreed that the draft was weak on civil freedoms, women's rights and guarantees of quality education. (The schools used as polling stations are invariably rundown and ill-equipped.)

When they asked my nationality and I replied "American", they shook their heads in dismay. "Obama is not helping us," one veiled woman said.

The Egyptian divide over the constitution is not necessarily bad. In a democracy, respecting the majority vote is not inconsistent with questioning government decisions and holding elected officials accountable. However, the ruling Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, has dismissed legitimate objections to the timing of the referendum and to substantive points in the charter.

Government spokesmen have taken pains to describe dissenters as the "elite", aggravating divisions between better-educated Egyptians and their lower-income compatriots. Mosques and popular sheikhs on television have propagated a "with us or against us" rhetoric, vilifying those who question the Islamists.

Rifaa Tantawi, the president's chief of staff, recently told CNN that voters were not influenced by religious rhetoric - although that was at odds with Al Azhar University's announcement that voting was a religious duty. "Vote yes for paradise" was a slogan heard at Friday prayers in some mosques.

But many "no" voters are neither elite nor anti-Islamic; they voted for Mr Morsi, but he has disappointed them. "There's nothing in this constitution for us," said one unemployed middle-aged man in my neighbourhood.

"I have no problem with Muslims in government," another man told me. "It's about management. Egypt is too big ... They can't handle it."

Egyptians boycotting the referendum claim the state's mismanagement of the process has compromised the results. Some fear ballot rigging; others believe the referendum was fixed in advance.

The referendum is staggered over two consecutive Saturdays, because hundreds of judges refused to supervise the polls, in protest against Mr Morsi's decree that challenged the powers of the judiciary. Civil-society organisations have warned of election fraud, partly because of the lack of qualified monitors.

Yet another ruling has called on state radio and TV stations to suspend the broadcast of "love songs and ballads" and instead focus strictly on Egypt's extensive canon of patriotic songs.

Voters in both camps have expressed a view that whatever the outcome of this referendum, the constitution could still be improved. Whatever their stance, Egyptians have frequently sounded the same fervent note: "Egypt is greater than this."

The country is greater than these disagreements, or this constitution, or the current government. As the referendum results are tallied, many predict Egypt will be split neatly in half. The belief in a national unity that transcends politics or religion will be placed, yet again, to the test.


Maria Golia is the Cairo-based author of Cairo, City of Sand and Photography and Egypt

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