Referendum Day

Al-Jazeera is reporting “very low” turnout in the referendum voting so far, especially in Cairo where voting would usually be expected to be high (Kefaya is also reporting weak turnout across the country – though everyone expects a blatantly forged result to be announced).  It’s worth noting that on a pretty busy news day, with the Arab Foreign Ministers meeting to talk about the Israeli-Palestinian initiative and plenty of other things, al-Jazeera is leading its news with the Egyptian referendum. 


A very tired looking Hussein Abd al-Ghani had NDP official Ali Shams al-Din in his studio, where they debated the implications of a 30% turnout; Shams al-Din tried to both contest the low turnout claim and to lower the bar for what would count as high turnout.  Expect such arguments to continue. (Al-Arabiya, which I’ve criticized for not covering the Egyptian events with much enthusiasm, is reporting on it today;  I just saw it interviewing a Muslim Brotherhood Member of Parliament who denounced the referendum.)

Most Arab outlets are reporting that Condoleeza Rice softened her criticisms of the referendum after meeting with Mubarak.  How humiliating, how predictable.  Abou el-Gheit is spooning out the terrorism angle – we must do this to protect ourselves, just as you did with your Patriot Act – and Rice (and at least some of the media) seems to be eating it up whatever the flavor.   Yes, how could Egypt possibly fight its great terror menace  while judges are supervising elections?   

UPDATE:  Elevated from comments, report from the ground by our friend Josh Stacher:

I was out and about this morning and afternoon……

Turnout was very low. I think in Cairo we are talking 3-4%. I saw ballot boxes at 12pm that had 7 votes in them (the high might have been 20). The ballot itself was extremely confusing as all 34 amendments were listed – it was 4 pages (both sides) of text with the green ’muwafiq’ or black ’gher muwafiq’ on the first page.

There were two types of polling stations today. The ones in NDP-strong constituencies (like Sayida Zainab & Fathi Sorour) where the party activists were busy moving people about and doing their spin about terrorism and increasing freedom. In these places, security/police were very relaxed and letting the party play.

Then there were other polling stations such as in Bab al-Sharaaya (Ayman Nour’s old consitutency), which despite being in the government’s hands since Nov 05, the party is clearly not comfortable. In these stations, security/police were in charge and the NDP seemed absent (no activists or organizers). Those Ligaan were some of the worst managed polling stations I have ever seen in any Egyptian electoral process – in terms of protocol, who was in charge, spin, following the rules, and basic communication.

Also, last night’s repression had an effect on Kifaya. They are lucky if there were 40 activists on the steps of the journalist syndicate (hemmed in by CSF). Al-Maseeri (the new head of Kifaya) is a sweet older gentleman but after speaking with him for ten minutes – it is clear neither he nor the movement has a vision or way forward. That was fine two years ago but now it just gives the whole movement of being stale.

The Brothers basic argument today was that they were not protesting because if they did, the government would bring tanks on the street. Perhaps….but I suspect their calculation is that the regime is doing more harm to itself than if group comes out on the streets. Because If they did, it gives the government an excuse to distract attention away from how the whole amendment ordeal has been so blatently rigged.  By doing nothing, the MB helps keep the pressure/focus on the state.

Perhaps, I am overanalyzing what was in many many respects a completely average day in Cairo during March. Not that I can prove this but well over 90% of Egyptians seemed to think the Amendment/Referendum process was a joke and it did not matter if they participated or not.

Good stuff from an astute analyst of Egyptian politics.  Thanks, Josh. 

UPDATE 1:00:  With the polls now closed, Al-Jazeera’s Hussein Abd al-Ghani has assembled another, very impressive, panel to talk about the referendum – if yesterday’s panel had strong NDP representation, this one is tilted more towards critical and independent voices (Abdullah Senawi, Salama Ahmed Salama, Abd al-Monim Said).  Al-Jazeera has really done an excellent job with this, turning itself into an Egyptian domestic outlet for large stretches of the referendum and featuring a wide range of voices.  But it’s not the only media outlet that matters, of course.  The liberal columnist Magdi Mohanna, who hosts one of the most influential Egyptian talk shows, had Kefaya’s coordinator Abd al-Wahab el-Messiri on yesterday.   At least those voices are being heard, despite the official Egyptian media’s best efforts.

4:00 …. Everybody is reporting “very low” or “very weak” turnout… right now al-Jazeera reports turnout of 5-7%.   According to Al-Arabiya,  the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights claims that turnout was about 2-3%, while the NDP is claiming 24-27%.  Al-Jazeera just now interviewed various “civil society monitors” and voting station workers saying that nobody came to vote for hours;  Hussein Abd al-Ghani presented estimates of turnout ranging from a semi-official 20% to an independent estimate of under 5%.   Continuing his outstanding presentation of a wide range of Egyptian views over the last couple of days, Abd al-Ghani currently has in the studio an NDP deputy and the head of the opposition Karama party Hamdin Sabahi, and just took a phone call from a prominent member of the Judges association (which did not oversee the referendum).  No word on results (which according to al-Jazeera are due within hours), but reports of fabrications and cheating are already circulating freely.   

Final update:  the Egyptian government now plans to announce the results tomorrow.  It is still claiming the  24-27% turnout I mentioned above, while independent observers are still estimating much lower figures; the claim of 55-60% in some of the more remote districts seems fishy – since those are the ones most likely to be free of pesky independent observers.  Al-Jazeera reports observers being driven away from the polling stations by security forces, as well as rumours of ballot boxes being switched… you know, the usual forgery stuff.   

Here’s a question which I may try to explore more fully tomorrow:  what kind of Constitution can be changed by a party line Parliamentary vote followed by a referendum with even a 25% turnout (as per the government’s exaggerated claim), much less the more credible 5-10% turnout?   Does something changed so easily at the whim of the ruling party even deserve the name “Constitution”, at least as conventionally understood by political scientists?

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Swissinfo, Switzerland
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Mubarak’s son calls for support on constitution
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Chosun Ilbo, South Korea
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National Post, Canada
Rice says she told Egyptian leaders of concerns over reforms
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Rice Urges Egypt to Reform Its Democracy
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Los Angeles Times, CA
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Kansas City Star, MO
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