On Tuesday and Wednesday, Egyptians will be voting on a new constitution for the second time in as many years. Amr Moussa, former secretary-general of the Arab League and chairman of the 50-member constitution-drafting committee, wrote in the New York Times last week that “Egyptians will have the opportunity to vote on the constitution in the referendum. I know the people of Egypt will embrace this moment.”
While Moussa is clearly proud of the final draft of the document—and this version does appear to be a vast improvement on its predecessors—he is wrong in thinking that “the people of Egypt will embrace this moment.”
The military-backed interim government that has been in power since the July 3 overthrow of Mohamed Mursi has spared no expense in trying to encourage Egyptians to embrace the moment. Cairo is plastered with posters calling on people to vote “yes” and approve the constitution. Public and private television channels have been holding expert panel discussions on the draft. The so-called experts all agree with one another: vote “yes.”
You would assume that such a massive PR campaign would cajole the population into a voting frenzy. After all, in Egypt’s first post-Mubarak vote in March 2011, also a constitutional referendum, queues extended around street corners and twisted and turned through alleys, even leaving the city limits out into the desert, so eager were Egyptians to cast the free and fair vote generations had waited for. It was a similar story in the summer of 2012 for the presidential elections. Facebook and Twitter pages were littered with Egyptians uploading pictures of their inked thumbs.
But that is not the picture today. While the military-backed government still enjoys popular support for having ousted Mohamed Mursi, many of the Egyptians I spoke to care little for the realpolitik. “Why would I give a damn about a constitution? Can I feed my kids the paper it’s written on?” asked one fruit vendor trying to make a living in downtown Cairo. In a café not more than a hundred feet from Tahrir Square, I spoke with two middle-aged men who shared a similar sentiment: “I don’t waste my time anymore [with politics]. It’s all been a game since 2011.” For others, the government’s PR campaign has contributed to the disillusionment. One woman commented that despite the huge media drive, “Hardly any copies of the constitution itself are being handed out to the people. They [the government] don’t care if you read it, they just want you to vote the way they tell you to.”
What all these people have in common is that they are not going to vote—not because they are boycotting, but out of apathy. Some even admitted they could get hold of a copy of the constitution quite easily, but that they no longer had the time or energy for continuous voting and formal politics. Many also explained that they had been excited to vote in elections after Mubarak’s removal, but that excitement and eagerness to participate has now completely evaporated. And this apathy is not limited to the so-called common Egyptians trying to earn their daily bread. Many young Egyptians who have been politically engaged for the past three years share this same disenchantment. One activist even said she had read parts of the constitution and would mostly likely vote “yes”—but, with a sigh, she admitted “I just don’t want to be involved in all this right now.”
Where does this leave Egypt? It was this same disconnect from politics that facilitated Mubarak’s thirty-year presidency. But while apathy has clearly crept back in, we are not about to return to a Mubarak-era mentality. Too much has happened and too many lives have been lost in the past three years.
The biggest problem with this constitution, and the reason Moussa is wrong when he says Egyptians will embrace the moment, is timing. At the outset of 2014, after years of complete turmoil, many Egyptians are abandoning politics and focusing on their personal lives. We too often forget that those calling for revolution and change are also human beings. Our levels of participation, excitement and hope will always fluctuate, and those levels are currently at a low ebb.
Prominent political activist and feminist Carol Hanisch first said the now-famous adage, “The personal is political.” For now, however, many Egyptians have chosen to cut that cord until the time is right to once again reconnect. This constitution will almost certainly pass with a high “yes” vote from those who do take part—but that is not to be confused with the overall approval of Egyptians.
This article was originally published in The Majalla.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine or Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.