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In one Cairo neighborhood, draft charter seen as a struggle of elites

By and Sharaf al-Hourani,

CAIRO — As Egyptians prepare to vote on a controversial draft constitution Saturday, their country appears deeply polarized between two sides — the Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Morsi and his more liberal, secular and Christian opponents — that have mobilized demonstrations and clashed in recent days.

But in a nation with 51 million voters, there is another side, too, one that might be roughly categorized as everyone else. It is a group whose members are easily found along the crowded and soot-blasted streets of Imbaba, a Cairo quarter that once seethed with militant Islam but now seethes with an aimless frustration that neither side appears to have channeled politically.

“All the struggles you see are for positions, just for power,” said Mohamed Mohamud, 56, smoking a cigarette Thursday in front of his electronics shop, where the light was switched off because there were no customers. “I blame both sides. While they are protesting, eating and drinking, they are ruining my business. There is no security, no jobs. Even if we agree with the constitution or don’t agree, the problems will happen, and I don’t know the end of this.”

At one point not too long ago, people such as Mohamud might have been considered part of the “couch party,” a term coined by Egypt’s liberal elite to describe those who sat out the revolution that ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago. But the phrase now seems too glib for the growing anger in places such as Imbaba, where laundry spills over crumbling balconies and shop shelves are sparse.

In interviews, people here expressed little enthusiasm for Morsi or political Islam — and even less for opposition figures who tweet their outrage about the turn Egypt’s revolution has taken but rarely offer solutions.

That, plus the generally chaotic atmosphere in which the referendum on the charter is taking place — the U.S.-based Carter Center said Thursday that it would not monitor the vote because of the “late release of regulations for witnesses” — has left many confused about how to vote on the charter and whether it will matter.

“Let me be honest,” said Ahmed Sabr Ahmed, 60, a jobless truck driver sitting with several other men in front of a ceramic-tile shop. “I do not know how to read, so I don’t know whether to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the constitution.”

What he did know, Ahmed said, was this: “I have three kids who haven’t found jobs or places to live, and they are living with me.”

A woman passing by leaned in: “Life is not good, it’s like tar — I’m living with 500 pounds a month,” she said, describing her roughly $20-a-week budget. “And the landlords are raising rents.”

“And, after a year, they kick you out of the house,” Ahmed said, as others nodded. “The people like us, we are dead. We are under the dirt.”

Osama Darwish, 40, a ceramics dealer, dismissed the recent protests as nothing more than “a war for the chair,” meaning power.

“Until now, with all this tension, we haven’t gotten anything good from either side,” he said, leaving him as confused as his friend Ahmed about how to vote Saturday.

Although Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters and his more liberal opponents cast the referendum, to be held this Saturday and the next, as a high-stakes moment for the soul of Egypt, Darwish, Ahmed and others see it as a moment to move beyond.

“I will vote ‘yes,’ ” said Mohamed Ali, 40, another ceramics dealer. “For the stability of the country, because we are hungry now. We want the country to move forward so we can at least have stability.”

He and others had little sympathy for the rival demonstrators throwing rocks at one another in the streets last week.

“Who are these people?” said Ala Abdi, 36, who is unemployed. Abdi said he was not fond of Morsi but disliked his opponents, who include former Mubarak figures, even more.

“I believe these people are just for special interests and don’t want the country to move forward. These people say ‘no’ to all of Morsi’s decisions. Could every decision be wrong? That’s not possible. We need to give him time,” Abdi said.

He said he would vote in favor of the draft charter; his undecided friends said they would wait and see what they heard on the way to the polls.

“Someone at the door will tell me what to do,” said Ahmed, seeming not to mind this method.

At his electronics shop, Mohamud said he had recently read the draft charter, which is being sold on the streets in booklet form for less than a $1. It had some good articles and bad ones, he decided. He had settled on voting against it, but not because of opposition concerns about human rights or free expression.

Rather, watching his business decline and Egyptians fight one another in the streets, he considered Saturday’s vote a referendum on Morsi’s government.

“They don’t know what they’re doing,” Mohamud said, adding that none of the opposition figures offers any hope either. “Not one. Not a single one of them.”

© The Washington Post Company