x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Clashes in Alexandria on eve of Egypt's constitutional vote

Supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist president fought with clubs and swords before police moved in to restore order. At least 19 people were injured.

Opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi hold pamphlets urging a
Opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi hold pamphlets urging a "no vote" on a constitutional referendum as cars burn during clashes between supporters and opponents of Mr Morsi in Alexandria, Egypt.

CAIRO // Clashes between supporters and opponents of Egypt's Islamist president broke out in Alexandria yesterday, adding to the dark cloud hanging over today's constitutional vote.

Supporters of the two sides fought with clubs and swords before police moved in to restore order. At least 19 people were injured, police said. Several vehicles were set on fire.

Tensions were high across the country before the vote, which begins today and finishes next Saturday. Opposition forces warn of a heightened possibility of voter manipulation, while international observers refused to monitor voting because of restricted access to polling stations.

In Cairo, rival rallies drawing in thousands of people took place across the city.

Whether the constitution is voted through or not, there will likely be continued instability because of the polarisation that has erupted over the process of writing the new constitution, and elements of the document that many opposition supporters fear herald the dawn of a more repressive, Islamist state.

Demonstrations outside the Presidential Palace during the past three weeks have proved the country is deeply divided over the constitution, but the referendum could show for the first time if the opposition is indeed a loud minority, as supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the president, and powerful Islamist groups claim, or if Islamists underestimated Egyptians' willingness to tolerate autocratic tendencies.

In every election since Hosni Mubarak stepped down from power last year amid a huge uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the ultraconservative Al Nour Party have won a sturdy majority of the votes. With long histories of grassroots organising and public services throughout Egypt, their ability to mobilise voters has been unparalleled.

"The Brotherhood have the resources to mobilise voters, but if the constitution is approved the question will be: were people mobilised or did Egyptians vote with their beliefs?" said Noha Bakr, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo. "Either way, I don't think there will be stability. The country is too divided."

Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, yesterday urged Egyptians to vote for what he called "the greatest constitution Egypt has ever known" on the group's Facebook page.

"The chance has come for you to grant yourself a constitution that organises your life, proves your sovereignty and raises your dignity high above," the statement said, according to the Egypt Independent newspaper's translation.

"This constitution was drafted by the Constituent Assembly that you elected indirectly. It exerted huge efforts to draft it. It offered it up to social dialogue six times over almost six months, so it would near perfection, even though humans cannot achieve that.

"Thanks to God, we have the greatest constitution Egypt had ever known."

The National Salvation Front, the umbrella opposition group, sees the constitution as the fruit of an Islamist-dominated body that does not go far enough in protecting freedoms and is not worthy of the January 25 uprising that made it possible. The draft also inserts more religious language and gives Al Azhar, the millenium-old mosque and university, a role for reviewing whether legislation is Sharia-compliant.

The proof of the unrepresentative nature of the constitution, the group says, is that more than 20 members of the 100-person committee that drafted the constitution walked out of proceedings before a final vote because of what they saw as the domineering behaviour of Islamist members.

The Front has urged its supporters to vote no, spurred by the belief that support for Islamists has been steadily declining since parliamentary elections last year where Islamists won roughly 70 per cent of the seats. In June, Mr Morsi won the presidency with 51.7 per cent of the vote against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister. If some of Mr Morsi's bloc joined the vote against the constitution, especially those who only voted for him because they could not bear a Mubarak-era official, the opposition believes they can win.

However, it was unclear whether the referendum would be properly overseen by judges and election monitors. Angered by Mr Morsi's attempts to shield himself from judicial oversight, many judges have refused to take part in the referendum. Some diplomats have also refused to oversee voting by expatriates in embassies, which began on Wednesday.

The Carter Centre, founded by former US president Jimmy Carter and a key international election monitoring group for elections in Egypt over the past two years, said on Thursday it would not deploy its observers in the referendum because it would not be able to conduct "a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of the referendum process".

In Tahrir Square yesterday, where hundreds gathered under a cloudy sky to hear a sermon from Imam Mazhar Shahin before Friday prayers, people were resolute in their determination to vote no but they expressed fears that voting would be manipulated.

Samer Yousef, 37, who works at a tourism company in Cairo, said he expected fraud in the elections but would vote no because "democracy means that everyone says what's inside of them, not that one group controls the country".

Many referred to the vote as the most important one since last year's uprising.

"Tomorrow will be either the worst day in the history of Egypt, or a flicker of light forward," said Ahmed Radwan, 22, a theatre director from Suez. "If the 'no' vote wins, the Brotherhood really has to know that they have lost legitimacy."

 

bhope@thenational.ae

* With additional reporting by Stephen Kalin