Friday morning is all quiet streets and the sound of our boab rolling up the prayer mats after noon prayers at the mosque on the first floor. It’s the Bekya (junk) man and his wooden cart, sandwiches from the Salafists who own the shop around the corner and Nescafé. There’s a cool breeze, and the Spanish girls on the first floor of our building are opening their shutters just as we close ours, to avoid the incessant rapping of a bird that wants to get in.
Egypt’s new draft constitution has just passed, with participation near 40 percent. Over 97 percent of people voted yes on the new document, though that’s hardly a surprise, as any dissenting voices were intimidated or arrested and ‘no’ campaigns were effectively banned. At a birthday party this weekend, an Egyptian lawyer who protested against the SCAF told me he was disgusted with the army-backed government and the referendum process and the direction of the country in general. “I’m extremely depressed,” he said.
For all of the mocking of Morsi’s overuse of the word شرعية (legitimacy) in his last major televised speech, the siren song of stability has replaced it. This word is repeated again and again on news programs and in taxi cabs, intended to evoke an air of necessity, and to justify supporting the new constitution and the military crackdown. For the sake of stability, we have to arrest journalists, beat back protesters and prosecute them. For the sake of stability, we must give up rights. Because of stability, we must kill terrorists, a word that can apply to anyone who doesn’t agree with the powers that be. It calls to mind the United States’ constant references to national security. The US, for all of the conspiracy talk that they are backing the Ikhwan, is one of the biggest believers in the religion of stability. While rights groups were decrying the oppression of political dissent in Egypt ahead of the referendum, Congress announced that they had decided to award Egypt’s military-backed interim government $1.5 billion in aid.
It would be wrong to say that the new constitution, which was surrounded by an intense media campaign (thousands of posters and billboards exhorting Egyptians to vote yes if they loved their country and if they hate terrorism) has become a bellwether of voter’s individual politics.
However, I think it’s fair to say that many of those who support the army and General Sisi equate this document with the continued reign of the military-backed government, and see it as an extension of Morsi’s removal on June 30. Many of those Egyptians who still support Morsi or who are wary of the army and its slow consolidation of power have decided to boycott.
The new document itself, though heavily endowed with political symbolism, deserves some independent consideration. It was drafted by a fifty-person committee of (mostly) secular Egyptians, and it has been criticized and commended by disparate groups: commended for the new protections allotted the disabled and women, and criticized for its expansion of powers for the military, such as enshrining the right to try civilians in military courts.
Samr, a twenty-something student working as a tour guide in Cairo, said she was pleased with how the constitution handled matters like women’s rights, but unhappy about how the military (the people who were responsible for writing the constitution, she said) was allotted so much power. In the end, though, for the sake of tourism and stability, she planned to vote yes.
This sentiment – that tourism required stability, and a yes vote on the new constitution was the way to get there – resurfaced over and over again in conversations I had with people in upper Egypt. In Luxor and Aswan, the political unrest in the country is clearly having an effect; the last time I visited in 2010, even though it was July and several of our group were stricken with heat stroke, the sites were crowded and lively. This winter, we often had the ancient temples to ourselves.
A horse and buggy driver in Edfo that I spoke with said that he would vote yes because stability had to come before tourism would improve, as did a taxi driver in Luxor named Abu. Both equated stability and increased tourism with the new constitution. “I don’t want to be afraid that someone is going to come into my house at night and take my son, or my wife, away from me,” Abu said. “This is why I’m approving the new constitution.” He added that there were problems with it because the same people who were ruling the country were the ones responsible for writing the constitution, but the problems were not going to be solved before the new constitution was put in place. “The country has to move forward,” he said.
Mohamed, a tour guide operator in Luxor, said that the document had a solid basis and he was going to vote yes, since a yes vote on the constitution represented a yes vote to the June 30 revolution. At the end of our conversation, he delicately inquired why the US was supporting the Brotherhood.
The lone dissenter was a taxi driver in Cairo called Ali, who said that he was voting no because “that’s my right,” and that there were a lot of problems with the document, which he linked to the erasure of rights for most normal people in Egypt.
(In the middle of our conversation, a car with a dozen people in it, including several young children wearing kohl around their eyes, pulled up next to ours on the freeway, utilizing that careful, speeding dance that Egyptian drivers seem to be so good at. A harried-looking woman leaned out the window and asked Ali if he had a plastic bag she could use. He did. They chatted for a while before the traffic started to move, and the station wagon’s passengers said that they were on their way to a wedding. Our driver smiled and wished them luck. We never found out what the plastic bag was for.)
Another taxi driver called Rami said that there were problems with the constitution as there are in any document that man writes. “But we need a strong Egypt. We want to be a progressive country that is moving forward. We are the center of the Middle East, you know,” he said.
We arrived the day before the referendum, and driving back from the airport, I noticed that someone was using a high power beam to project “Yes to the Constitution, for Egypt’s sake” on one wall of a giant highrise building downtown. I flipped through some news channels the next day, and the phrase ‘Egypt Fights Terrorism’ was emblazoned – in English – on the lower left corner of the screen, during a CBC news program about the referendum. Later that night, after dinner in Zamalek to celebrate my mother in law’s last night in Egypt, we passed a group of children and a few adults spontaneously cheering in the street and clapping their hands. “Egypt, Egypt!” the children shrieked. “Sisi, Sisi!”