Selling a constitution

On billboards that dot the country’s highways and roads, and on TV and radio airwaves, Egyptian citizens are surrounded by advertising campaigns urging them to vote for the draft constitution in the upcoming referendum.

Even the Armed Forces have been keen to encourage citizens to participate in the referendum with song, “Go out and Take Part,” produced by the Moral Affairs Department.

The campaigns kicked off days before final voting took place on the draft constitution by the 50-member committee, with billboards raised across Cairo urging Egyptians to participate in the referendum in order to say “yes to June 30 and January 25.”

Television adverts also aired continuously on private and public TV channels, showing the millions of protesters on June 30 and asking Egyptians to participate in the referendum to “show the world who we really are.” The adverts claim that participation means “no to darkness.”

Leading advertising company Tarek Nour Communications is behind the campaign. This is the same company that managed the campaign of former presidential hopeful and last prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmad Shafiq, who narrowly lost to Mohammed Morsi.

The company’s CEO and founder, Tarek Nour, says that a group of loyal Egyptian businessmen were behind the campaign, but declined to mention their names. “They requested anonymity out of fear of negative affects to their business in countries supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, and revenge from the Brotherhood itself,” he says.

Last year, the then-ruling Muslim Brotherhood promoted its constitution with a campaign entitled, “With the constitution, the wheel will keep turning.” The Brotherhood used religious arguments at a grassroots level to persuade voters to say “yes,” through sympathetic preachers in mosques and rallies.

Critics say current campaigns utilize ultra-nationalistic appeals to urge Egyptians to pass the constitution. But Nour defends his campaign, accusing the Brotherhood of propagating such criticism. “The campaign at first was not pushing people to vote ‘yes,’ but was urging them in a smart way to participate and be active. It is totally different from the Brotherhood campaigning,” he argued.

Those behind the adverts are not subject to any oversight or disclosure, as the High Elections Commission is only mandated to observe campaigning in the last 48 hours before the referendum.

Many political parties have come out in favor of the constitution. These include the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Free Egyptian Party, the Karama Party and the Arab Nasserist Party.

One campaign in particular stands out; that of the Independence Current, whose founder is Ahmed Fadaly — who also headed the Salam Democratic Party, a small party established under Hosni Mubarak’s deposed regime. Fadaly has affixed his name and picture to adverts blanketing Cairo, urging Egyptians to vote “yes.”

“A ‘yes’ to the constitution is not just a ‘yes’ to its articles, it is also a ‘yes’ to Egypt, a ‘yes’ to its 7000 years of history, a ‘yes’ to the roadmap, a ‘yes’ saying that Egyptians are determined to face the forces of terror,” Fadaly said in a press conference on December 29.

A “yes” campaign with a religious twist

Nationalist forces supporting the military-backed interim government and its roadmap are not the only powers campaigning for a “yes” vote. The Salafi Nour Party, which was represented by one of two Islamist members in the committee of 50 responsible for drafting the constitution, is also doing so.

One of the major criticisms of Islamist political parties over the course of the last few years has been their use of religious rhetoric to affect voters. One of the most well known campaign tactics of Islamist parties was to mobilize support by invoking Sharia and playing on the religious feelings of voters.

Mohammed Ayyad, a coordinator of the Nour Party’s pro-constitution campaign, says that campaigning for Sharia is important, but is not everything. This is a significant turn-around for a party that focused relentlessly on Sharia and its role in the constitution throughout 2012. The committee of 50 removed many of the articles that expanded the role of religion in public life and legislation, which Salafis had formerly maintained were a “red line.” Nonetheless, “we believe that this draft constitution protects Islamic Sharia,” Ayyad says. “But, it is not the only thing.”

The party’s official Facebook page published a song to be played at their rallies to support the constitution. In the song, preserving Sharia and Islamic identity is mentioned as the third reason to support the constitutional draft. Ensuring stability and building state institutions were the first two.

Critics of the major Salafi party have speculated that it has lost popularity among conservative Islamist circles following its support of the military intervention that ousted President Mohamed Morsi in July.

Alexandria-based journalist Abdel Rahman Youssef tells Mada Masr that the Nour party’s pro-constitution campaign in the coastal city was initially targeting its grassroots Salafi networks more than the general public.

A mass rally by the party was held two weeks ago, featuring major religious leaders of the Salafi Dawah, the mother organization of the Nour Party. “Most of the audience was from the Salafi community; buses transporting party members from other governorates came to the rally,” Youssef says. “It was obvious that the party was targeting its base. In wider circles, Salafis talk more about stability and the economy,” he explained.

The Muslim Brotherhood has dismissed the draft constitution as a “victory for the church and its secular allies.” Supporters of the military-backed interim government have mobilized official religious authorities to counter Brotherhood claims that the new constitution is anti-Islamic.

In mid-December, speaking at a public gathering in Cairo to launch the “Egypt is my country” campaign, former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa urged Egyptians to “mobilize in support of a constitution that will amaze the world and frighten the hearts of the terrorists,” referring to supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood group.

“Go out yourselves, with your wives and your children, to the ballot boxes,” Gomaa exhorted his listeners. “Every owner of a factory, every owner of a farm should mobilize their workers. Everyone who goes with their families, know you are supported by God because you are against corruption, atheism, hypocrisy, division and immorality,” he said.

Any space for a “no” vote?

Amid an atmosphere of loud support for a “yes” vote, voices declaring their rejection of the draft constitution are muffled.

On December 22, the Brotherhood called for a boycott of the “null and void” referendum. But, the group — now officially designated a terrorist organization — will be unable to mobilize publicly against the charter.

One of the few political forces that has called for rejecting the draft is the Strong Egypt Party, founded by former Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Abouel Fotouh. Founded predominantly by former members of the deposed Islamist organization, the party has been viewed as a promising moderate “middle way” by supporters, and dismissed by critics as an offshoot of the Brotherhood.

Head of the party’s public outreach committee Ayman Montasser recounts how difficult it has been for party members to campaign for rejecting the draft constitution, compared to last year, when the Strong Egypt party — alongside many other public figures and political forces — mobilized a strong “no” vote on the Brotherhood-backed constitution.

“We were planning to hold four big mass rallies across the country to call for rejecting the draft, but unfortunately all plans have been cancelled,” Montasser says.

He explains that he had heard of many cases of individuals who were assaulted by fellow citizens or arrested when they attempted to mobilize for a “no” vote.

“I’m responsible for the members I send to the streets in the campaign; I cannot bear the responsibility of them being arrested or beaten,” he says, adding that the party has decided only to hang small banners explaining why voters should reject the draft constitution.

Other groups that have called for a boycott or a “no” vote are the Revolutionary Socialists, the April 6 Youth Group and the Salafi Front.

Montasser believes that voters are not as ready to accept different voices as they were during the debate over the last constitutional referendum.

“Last year, those who said ‘no’ were considered infidels by the Brotherhood,” he says. “Those who say ‘no’ today are traitors.”

Mai Shams El-Din