Boxed in

I (very) briefly grappled with whether to vote, or boycott this referendum but after the experience of covering the Sisi popularity contest Tuesday, I will not be ticking any boxes. 

I did a little straw poll on Facebook to see what others were doing. The overwhelming majority are also boycotting, because they are mostly all lefty traitors and spies. Various reasons were given why: 

“I didn’t go anywhere on 30 June or sign the Tamarod petition because it smelled rotten. So I haven’t shifted my opinion; everything still seems shitty to me and I can’t see where to start working on something constructive.”

“I’m ignoring. Boycotting is too motivated a stance to have for this charade.”

“I will not participate in anything that can be used by this regime to claim it has achieved stability or a trace thereof. I realize that at this stage what I do or don’t do will change nothing on the ground. But I need this to keep my sanity.”

“Boycotting. Besides rejecting the dictates of the fascist-nationalist project, as noted above, a boycott is not without political significance if a large turnout plays into their hands.”

“Boycotting as a moral responsibility. If there’s one thing we should have learned by now, it is that stability and injustice don’t mix.”

But, one friend made a compelling argument for voting no:

“I’m voting no. Mainly in defiance of the incessant ‘yes’ propaganda and the crackdown on the ‘no’ campaign. I think the state, mukharabat [intelligence] and Sisi lovers are more bothered by no voters than boycotters. If I’m doing something they don’t like, I’m probably doing something right.”

I wonder, though, given that only a tiny minority will vote “no,” whether, as another friend suggested, the number that most matters to them now is the turnout and not the (assured) “yes” result.

“Yes” voters are being criticized in some circles as army-loving zombies or Sisi obsessed fascists. But, while I don’t agree with their reasons for saying “yes,” I can sort of see that it is possible to be a rational person and vote “yes.” Examples include:

“I voted. If we give into apathy and lose hope now, what message are we sending future generations?”

“Voting ‘yes.’ I’m getting old, stability is more important than ever… I mean with the new baby and all.”

“Participating saying ‘yes,’ and que sera sera.”

“Intended to vote ‘yes’ because of a handful of good articles in the constitution that I think represent significant gains. Of course, I have a big issue with military trials and some other things, but I don’t think we’ll realistically get something better at this stage. But after I decided to vote ‘yes,’ I couldn’t be bothered to go the embassy because it’s all shit anyway…”

“Yes, because I prefer to have the new constitution over the Morsi written constitution, so want it to pass. Also, I want Islamists to lose legitimacy. Is it the best constitution or the way I want Egypt to move forward? No.”

This last one for me sums up my reasons for boycotting. A referendum on the constitution is rarely about the document itself, but more than any previous plebiscite this vote is about sticking two fingers up at the Brotherhood and expressing varying levels of confidence/adoration in the army and more specifically the person of Commander-in-Chief Abdel Fatah el Sisi.

Voters repeatedly linked a “yes” to the constitution with a “yes to Sisi” yesterday. His picture was everywhere, and in some quarters he is regarded as the second coming. One man actually said this, that Sisi was “sent” to protect Egypt. I remembered 2011, and the Islamists and their rhetoric, a “yes” vote is a vote for Islam. It’s still all about interchangeable deities in the end. 

One interesting aspect of all this is that Mubarak was noticeably absent from the military effigies (Nasser, Sadat, Sisi) plastered everywhere, but his spirit permeated everything. He bequeathed the current situation to Egypt, after all, the us vs. them mindset, the suspicion of political or cultural otherness, that idea that Egypt, and Egyptian identity, must be a fortress against interlopers and the ease with which the threat of such interlopers, real or imagined, can steer the country’s course. 

This referendum is part of that legacy. It is another brick in the wall of the security state and its relentless homogeneity. In January 2011, there was a small crack put in that wall and we were given a glimpse of a new possibility, of new faces, and new political forces. But through a tragic and increasingly inevitable combination of their own inexperience, blind trust and the public’s unwillingness to back an unknown entity, they were eventually shut out of the public space and we were reduced to the same old tired binary of Islamists and the old state — just like Mubarak promised us. 

Now the old state has won, to great applause, and there is absolutely no room for difference, all in the name of stability and progress. There is no visible “no” campaign, and a “no” voter has become an endangered species. Nine people (apparently mostly affiliated with the anti-coup movement) were killed yesterday. 

The ballot itself seems to be pretty much violation-free (there were a few incidents of polling stations opening late, judges not showing up, etc), and the authorities and others who vocally support the army and its roadmap will make great play of that. They will ignore the seemingly low turnout and the way that the “yes” campaign equated saying “yes” with loving one’s country, and with saying “no” to terrorism. They will also ignore the fact that people were quietly arrested while campaigning for a “no” vote. 

We back a wishy-washy state that dodges bullets by lingering at the margins of legality. It arrests and imprisons journalists without charge, but only journalists from one media establishment, so that when you condemn a violation of media freedoms it brushes this off with “no, this is about fighting terrorism,” and people can write what they like, as long as they are not employees of Al-Jazeera. It silences the opposition, but either in the name of the law or covertly, through laws that shut down protests or groups and through telephone threats and surprise visits to activists’ homes. It points to the huge public support, the “authorization” it sought and received for its war on terrorism as empowering it to create this state of exceptionalism, the never ending danger justifying measures that reduce opposition public life to furtive mad dashes through an obstacle course of threats and penalties. 

In the slew of Facebook statuses and tweets bidding good riddance to 2013 and its travails, one friend wrote that for all its sadness, 2013 will be remembered as the year in which a Muslim majority country unseated an Islamist regime. There is something to be said for that, I suppose, just like 2011 was the year in which Egypt deposed the dictator that had sat on its chest for three decades.

I still believe that the Brotherhood should have been left longer to prove their spectacular inability to govern equitably and expose more of their authoritarian tendencies. It is a minority view, but their sinister little project was aborted too early. The counter argument to this is that blood was being spilled, and Egypt was on the cusp of a civil war. But people are still dying almost every day, killed by police bullets or in bombings, and with arguably an even more impoverished democracy. The Brotherhood demonstrated no interest in democracy outside of the ballot box, or willingness to engage with the opposition, while at the same time crowing about legitimacy and the democratic process. Its successors are not much different, except that they are a military regime built on a legacy of 60 years of authoritarianism and which is claiming legitimacy through people power. It has already killed hundreds of people and arrested thousands. I find this terrifying, and won’t legitimize it by taking part in a vote whose purpose is to sanction what has happened and what is to come. 


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