CAIRO—Plans are underway this week in Egypt to celebrate the country’s upcoming “Revolution Day” on Jan. 25, marking the three-year anniversary of the country’s uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak.
Since then, Egyptians have deposed another president, Mohamed Morsi, ditched a rushed-through 2012 constitution, and approved a new constitution. Sporadic violence continues to plague the country. This morning, a car bomb exploded outside Cairo’s police headquarters, killing three and injuring dozens more. The blast also damaged a nearby museum and courthouse.
But across Cairo last week, enthusiastic voters showed off fingertips stained with the red ink used to mark their ballots in the constitutional referendum.
On the first day of voting, an employee at a Nile tour business struck up a conversation with me as I stepped off a creaking fallukah (small sail boat) at the dock where he worked: “Did you vote?” he asked. We both laughed since it is virtually impossible to mistake me for an Egyptian. “No, did you?” I played along. “Yes! I voted yes!” He held up his pink-tinged pinky finger with a wide grin.
On the second day of voting, I asked a cab driver from the district of Shubra, home to the highest concentration of Coptic Christians in Cairo, what he thought of the referendum. “The constitution is very good,” he said. I asked him if most people voted in Shubra. “Eighty-five or 90 percent,” he replied. “And Sisi is beautiful,” he added. “The women love him.” (Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sisi is head of the country’s interim government, and a possible candidate for the presidency.)
An American neighbor touring Pharaonic sights in Upper Egypt overheard a bus driver answering his phone with a greeting, “Yes … to the constitution!” Throughout Egypt, cheerful yea-sayers have been easy to spot during and following the vote. Other contingents have remained intentionally inconspicuous, or else taken significant risks to speak out.
In private conversation, a teacher in his 20s from a village outside Cairo told me that while the constitution contains plenty of inspirational rhetoric, it does not inspire his trust. “When I read it,” he explained, “ I thought, where am I? France? America?” The document, in his view, has little to do with how things play out in reality. Among his friends, views on the constitution are mixed. Some voted; others did not. “I did not vote,” he said.
Egyptians face strong admonition, in the form of public examples, to keep critical ideas about the current regime and the constitution under wraps. Leading up to the referendum, four members of the Strong Egypt Party were arrested for trying to distribute flyers and mount posters campaigning for “no” votes. Officials halted their efforts with charges of “inciting obstruction to the constitution.” This week, 24 people, including a prominent liberal intellectual and the deposed president, face charges for “insulting the judiciary.”
Egyptians wary of the regime, including many shebab (youth), view the constitution’s 98.1 percent passage rate as a problem rather than an accomplishment. Famous and controversial satirist Bassem Youssef, often called Egypt’s version of Jon Stewart, offered a sharp, if humorous, critique in an Al Arabiya article. The ballot might as well have offered the options “yes” or “definitely yes,” he argued, if there is really no room to say no.
On the national and international stages, debate continues about the referendum’s results and the plausibility of Egypt moving toward greater democracy and freedom. In Cairo streets and neighborhoods, such arguments saturate daily life.
In my neighborhood barbershop on a quiet afternoon last weekend, an employee sat next to me in the waiting area while the barber, within earshot, carefully combed and cut his sole customer’s hair. “I voted!” the man next to me said, presenting his ink-stained finger. “But not him. He’s Ikhwan”—a Muslim Brother. He raised his voice to make sure the barber could hear.
“No, I did not vote,” the barber said, shooting his friend a half-admonishing look. “Mubarak was not good, Morsi was not good, and Sisi is not good, and military rule is not good. I don’t know who is good.” My outspoken companion nodded triumphantly as if to say, “I told you so,” and burst into laughter. The barber rolled his eyes, shook his head and neglected to suppress a smile as he clipped another lock of hair.
Some Egyptians view the constitution, and promise of presidential and parliamentary elections soon to follow, as a continuation of the step toward freedom that began in Tahrir Square. But many youth who drove the 2011 revolution worry that their country may be on the wrong track.
On Saturday, Egyptians of all demographics will take to the streets en masse and with vigor for Revolution Day—some to celebrate and others to protest. How will such a divided mega-gathering unfold? Fireworks are certainly a given.