The political battle for Egypt’s future began in earnest last month when the country’s ruling military council held a referendum to approve its amendments to the constitution. The Muslim Brotherhood, backing the military, easily won that first test of Egypt’s new democracy, with 77 percent of the public supporting their recommended vote of “yes.”
But the secular Tahrir Square revolutionaries are fighting back, forming new political parties and continuing their campaign for democratic change. And the Brotherhood, although clearly a formidable force, is beginning to fracture, with several Islamist parties planning to offer candidates in Egypt’s parliamentary elections in the fall.
What’s worrisome is that last month’s voting had clear religious overtones in some of Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods. The consolation is that these religious tensions, always rumbling under the surface in Egyptian society, are now being expressed by voters rather than by suicide bombers.
Here’s what the March 19 referendum campaign looked like in the poor district known as Old Cairo, south of downtown. My account is drawn from Yasmina Abou Youssef, a community activist who took me through part of that area in February. At that time, she believed the Muslim Brotherhood had little influence in these slums. But it seems to have become more active once a political prize was in sight.
Abou Youssef and other activists held a rally two days before the referendum to urge residents to vote “no,” arguing that more time was needed to write a new constitution and organize parties. As she left, she received an anonymous text message warning that if she didn’t stay away, extremists would throw acid on her face and burn down her community center. She went back despite the threat — and photographed posters with the simple message: “Yes. Muslim Brotherhood.”
In the hours before the referendum, rumors spread in Old Cairo and across Egypt that because Coptic Christians were campaigning against the amendments, Muslims had an obligation to vote “yes.” (The existing constitution, whose basic text the Brotherhood was defending, does say that Egypt is a Muslim state ruled in accordance with sharia law, but this provision has always been regarded as largely symbolic, and most of the “no” activists didn’t plan to change it.)
Abou Youssef had organized buses to take neighborhood voters to the polls. On the way, she heard one woman advise her friends: “You have to say ‘yes’ to keep Islam. If you say ‘no,’ we will be a Christian country.”
The Muslim Brotherhood used other hardball political tactics. Members gave away food, household products and even small appliances to friendly voters. And needless to say, residents of Old Cairo voted overwhelmingly in favor of the limited amendments. A sheik in one Cairo mosque is said to have told worshipers afterward: “Islam has won. Now, whoever is not happy with ‘yes’ can go to Canada or the United States.”
The Tahrir Square activists were depressed after the vote, with some arguing that their revolution had been hijacked by an alliance of the Brotherhood and the military. “We were all down after the collapse of the referendum,” says Abou Youssef. “It turned out as a battle over religion, not the constitution.”
But in the weeks since the referendum, the activists seem to have gotten a second wind and started forming new parties to compete with the Brotherhood. There’s the Social Democratic Party, which includes pro-democracy organizer Amr Hamzawy; the Egyptian Liberal Party, formed by Naguib Sawiris, the head of the telecommunications giant Orascom; and a leftist group called the Popular Alliance. Many more parties are on the way.
Muslim voters, too, will have a broader array of choices in the fall, with former Brotherhood leaders splitting into three and perhaps four camps, with the Salafists forming two parties and a pro-jihad group forming at least one. That’s the new Egypt — all the ideologies that were suppressed by force under President Hosni Mubarak are now out campaigning in the sun.
Egypt’s romance with democracy is exciting, if sometimes also discouraging. But there’s one big danger the ballot box won’t address, and that’s Egypt’s sinking economy. Tourism has collapsed, industrial production has fallen sharply and foreign investment has all but stopped.
Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, worries that a liquidity crunch will hit in mid-summer. If the democratic revolution can succeed in Egypt, it will triumph across the Middle East, says Fahmy, but he warns: “We have a huge hole that needs to be plugged, and we can’t do it alone.”