A few days ago when I was writing the CNN Op-Ed piece on Egypt’s referendum, I had a sentence that compared the propaganda campaign and the Sisi mania with North Korea’s sick regime. Then at the last minute, I removed it thinking this is an unnecessary and unrealistic comparison. Today with preliminary results of the vote indicating that the yes vote may be close to 98%, I realize how right I was to remove the sentence comparing Egypt to North Korea. I was being unfair to North Korea.
I then received some remarks criticizing me for making the comparison between Egypt and North Korea . In response, I would like to make the following three points of clarification:
1. I am in the US now and could not vote for a number of complicated logistical problems. If I were in Egypt, I would have voted, even though I would have been taking enormous risks by doing so as described in no. 3 below.
2. I respect the result of the vote and will have to live with it. I also understand the reasons why people voted in these large numbers, although I don’t share their reasons (otherwise, I would have voted yes.) I laid down my understanding of these reasons in my CNN editorial (also posted below).
3. Understanding the reasons why people voted a certain way does not mean that you accept the circumstances in which they were asked to do so. What are these circumstances? Well, we all know them, but some people belittle them. I don’t. They are:
a. a relentless public media campaign that played on people’s fears and portrayed the vote as a vote for the very existence of Egypt as an entity;
b. this in itself is fine and is a valid tactic of political campaigning, but only provided the other side has equal access to the same media, something that obviously did not happen. In fact, all media outlets that were critical of the constitution/the army/al-Sisi were either closed down or prevented form sending out this message;
c. arresting, trying and imprisoning youth activists who are critical of the army;
d. arresting and killing Muslim Brotherhood supporters, not only the members and/or leaders;
e. the soldiers in polling stations were issued shoot-to-kill orders by both the military (as announced by former General Sameh Seif al-Yazal on TV) and the police (as announced by Minister of the Interior himself, also on TV). This made these soldiers trigger-happy, the way their colleagues in military checkpoints have been with numerous fatal incidents– and this obviously intimidated many naysayers;
f. arresting any activist who attempted to distribute leaflets in which they tried to express their criticisms of the constitutional draft, which is ostensibly the subject of the referendum thus preventing them from offering an alternative view to the public;
g. during the first day of polling the media (and it is useless now to say “pro-army media” for this now goes without saying) ran numerous stories about suspected MB members being arrested while standing in line attempting to cast their ballots– this must have also had an impact on some naysayers who were brave enough to want to go to vote.
How can a vote under these circumstances be described as free and fair?
So my point is: I understand the reason why people voted in such large numbers saying yes to the constitutional draft (fear of the MB, being tired of 3 years of revolution; being concerned about their economic livelihood, etc). I respect these reasons and bow to them. I also blame revolutionary youth (including myself, although I am not that young 🙂 ) for not being sensitive enough to these very valid reasons. But this in no way justifies the very cynical, not to say criminal, way the army and the police have used these reasons effectively to close off the entire political scene.
98 % is a travesty, whichever way we look at it. If it is a result of rigging (which I don’t think it is), then it is a travesty. If it is not, then still it is a travesty. A country as big as Egypt, passing through a very decisive moment in its history like the one we are passing through now, cannot all agree (with the exception of a mere 2%) on anything, let alone on a founding charter.
Blaming those who wanted to say no but who ended up boycotting the poll for being defeatist or lazy or politically naive seems to me not only unfair, but also being complicit with the draconian measures taken by the army and the police in supposedly “protecting the polling process”.
When you are being shot at; when your colleagues are on the run, lying in prison, or rotting in a morgue; when you are depicted as a traitor, no less, for raising valid critical questions about a fundamental moment in your country’s history; when you are prevented from even holding a meeting with friends and colleagues to discuss these issues; when you are arrested for distributing leaflets in a peaceful way expressing your political standpoint – when all of this happens to you, how can I blame you for deciding not to vote? How can I even blame you for deciding not to engage in this travesty in any way, shape or form lest you give it legitimacy by doing so?
So my point to those who are critical of the naysayers and who blame them for not trying hard enough to understand the reasons why people voted the way they did, is to invite them to ask themselves the same question: why do you think the naysayers stayed at home? And do you blame them for doing so?