Egyptian voters headed to the polls on Saturday in a referendum on a controversial draft constitution. According to unofficial preliminary results, the document passed the first round with 57 percent of the vote with a turnout of just 31 percent. A second round is scheduled for this Saturday in remaining areas. A coalition of human rights groups has called for a revote, citing thousands of complaints of violations at the polls, including a lack of full judicial supervision. Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous reports from Cairo. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn to Egypt, where voters headed to the polls Saturday in a referendum on a controversial draft constitution. We turn right now to Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Voting amongst deep division. Egyptians headed to the polls on Saturday in the sixth national election in nearly two years, this time to vote in a referendum on a hotly disputed constitution, one that comes at a time of severe political crisis. The country is reeling from three weeks of turmoil, mass street protests and fatal clashes. Amidst the vote, the growing polarization and mistrust is evident.
CONSTITUTION OPPONENT 1: Today we say no to the constitution because we do not want this constitution to be made with the blood of the people. I hope they don’t rig the vote.
CONSTITUTION SUPPORTER 1: Say yes to the constitution, yes to dignity, yes to building institutions, yes to building the nation.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: President Morsi and his group, the Muslim Brotherhood, pushed hard for the December 15th referendum, insisting on moving ahead despite fierce objections by the opposition and mass protests that brought tens of thousands into the streets in some of the largest demonstrations since the revolution began. A controversial decree that gave the president near-absolute power ignited the turmoil, and the constituent assembly’s vote to pass the draft constitution despite the withdrawal of nearly all of the body’s non-Islamist members added fuel to the fire.
But the crisis severely escalated when leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood called on their supporters to descend on a peaceful sit-in by protesters at the presidential palace. Clashes quickly erupted with rocks, Molotov cocktails, birdshot and live ammunition. In the melee, the president’s supporters captured dozens of anti-Morsi protesters and took them to a makeshift detention center at the gate of the presidential palace. They were held for hours, brutally beaten and pressured to confess they had been paid to use violence in protests against the president.
YEHIA ZAKARIA NEGM: So they captured me. They dragged me. They beat me. Well, they used everything to hit us. I almost lost my conscience. I almost died.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yehia Zakaria Negm is a former diplomat who was held for nearly 12 hours by Morsi supporters. Speaking a week after his ordeal, his face is still badly bruised.
YEHIA ZAKARIA NEGM: They were jumping over my chest, trying to kill me. They stopped the ambulances from helping us, from taking us to the hospital. We were bleeding severely. They even sprayed our eyes with some aerosols. I don’t know what they used. It was very, very brutal.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yehia says his hands and feet were bound as his captors repeatedly accused him of being a traitor and a spy.
YEHIA ZAKARIA NEGM: What I had on, an old ID, so it said that I am a diplomat. They told me that “You are a spy; you are conspiring against the country with other embassies, foreign embassies,” and so on.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Riot police who were present at the scene merely looked on as Morsi supporters beat and interrogated anti-Morsi protesters. The detainees included both men and women.
OLA SHAHBA: Almost 40 or 50 men were holding me, grabbing me, harassing me, not knowing yet that I am a woman, and beating me. They later took the helmet off and then discovered I am a woman. And then a different kind of harassment started.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ola Shahba is a longtime activist and a member of the Socialist Popular Alliance Party. For years, she had protested against the Mubarak regime for its crackdowns on the Muslim Brotherhood.
OLA SHAHBA: I’d prefer to be beaten by the police than to be beaten up by the people I once demonstrated and I stood by, side—by their side in many other causes, where I did believe in their right to demonstrate and their right not to be tortured and their right not to be detained.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Like other protesters, Ola says she was interrogated for hours by members of the Brotherhood and other Islamist groups.
OLA SHAHBA: Questions that had to do with whether I am a Christian or not, how much would—have I been paid to come and do that, how many did I kill from their leagues, why do I hate them, why do I hate God, why am I fighting against God.
AIDA SEIF EL DAWLA: This is a message that the Brotherhood, the Freedom and Justice Party, the president—I don’t care how they classify themselves—are not objecting to torture. They think it is a legitimate way to confront your so-called enemies.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Aida Seif El Dawla is a professor of psychiatry at Ain Shams University and a member of the Nadeem Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and Torture.
AIDA SEIF EL DAWLA: They are talking about confrontation between the Islamists and the secularists, the confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and I don’t know what. This is a confrontation between the ruling party, alright, and the opposition to the ruling party.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Morsi supporters detained the protesters all night and turned them over to prosecutors the next day. The prosecutors released all of them without charge for lack of evidence. Yet, in a troubling development, it appears the president himself used the confessions obtained by his Islamist supporters in a nationally televised speech that evening. He said he had evidence those protesting against him had taken money to commit violence.
YEHIA ZAKARIA NEGM: He went out to tell the people that we confessed and we had explosions—explosives and so on. It was a big lie, because ’til that time, we were not investigated yet by the attorney general or any judicial authority.
AIDA SEIF EL DAWLA: This shows you that he is a state within a state. He has his own police apparatus. He has his own intelligence apparatus. He has his own prosecution, you know? And he wants to enforce this on us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: The clashes at the presidential compound on December 5th marked the most serious violent confrontation by supporters and opponents of President Morsi, and those who suffered came from both sides of the divide. At least 10 people were killed, most of them from the ranks of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Thirty-eight-year-old Mohamed Khalaf was a member of the group for close to two decades. He was shot and killed during the clashes, and his family is still trying to make sense of the loss. They have the clothes he wore, stained with blood. His mother is overcome by grief when they are brought out.
His brother Ahmed says Mohamed went to the presidential palace straight from work after he heard there was a march to support the president. He went to stand with something he agreed with, Ahmed says, and he went peacefully. He says Mohamed was standing with others as part of a defensive wall, when he was shot in the head at close range.
Mohamed’s sister, Faiza, says she went to see her dead brother at the morgue that evening. She weeps as she describes seeing his corpse, blood coming out of his mouth and nose and from the bullet hole in the back of his head.
Mohamed’s family holds the political opposition responsible for his death. Ahmed says he filed a case against the leaders of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition group headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, Hamdeen Sabahi and Amr Moussa, for inciting violence at the presidential palace. They say the anti-Morsi protesters do not respect the democratic process. Mohamed’s mother also blames the opposition for her son’s death and says she wants people to disagree peacefully. The family says they will all vote yes in the referendum.
Both sides in the clashes have mourned the dead. Among those killed was Al-Husseini Abu Deif, a 33-year-old journalist with the newspaper Al-Fagr. He was shot in the head while covering the clashes at the presidential compound. His friend, Mahmoud Abdel Qader, was next to him when he was shot near the front lines.
MAHMOUD ABDEL QADER: [translated] There was heavy fire, something like 10 shots in a row. Then I heard a shot and the sound of his skull bone being hit. I had my hand on his shoulder. There was hardly any space between our heads. I heard the sound very well. Then he fell.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Al-Husseini went into a coma and died one week later. His death sparked emotional and angry protests by hundreds of his colleagues at the Journalists Syndicate, who held the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for his death. Al-Husseini Abu Deif was known as an active protester for many years against the Mubarak regime. He had also actively protested President Morsi and the Brotherhood’s policies. Yet, in a move that enraged his friends and colleagues, the official English-language website of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party blamed the opposition for his death.
MARY DANIEL: [translated] Instead of blaming the opposition, they should blame themselves.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Mary Daniel is a well-known activist who was close friends with Al-Husseini.
MARY DANIEL: [translated] Al-Husseini Abu Deif was a very peaceful and kind person, and he wasn’t the type to have hatred or act with vengeance. He went in to film the events. They should blame themselves and blame the killer himself.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: It was in the wake of the violence at the presidential palace and the deepening political polarization that Saturday’s referendum took place. On the eve of the vote, clashes broke out in Alexandria, with thousands hurling rocks at each other after a protester at a mosque urged worshipers to vote yes on the constitution.
GHADA SHAHBANDAR: Elections and referenda should be carried in a free and safe environment. This is a legal prerequisite.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Ghada Shahbandar is a member of the board of directors for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
GHADA SHAHBANDAR: What’s happening now is that there’s been a lot of instability. There were outbreaks of violence all over Egypt over the past two weeks, so this does not qualify as a safe and secure environment.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Just three days before the national referendum was scheduled to take place, the presidency announced the poll would be held over two days, one week apart. There weren’t enough judges to supervise the vote, as many of them were boycotting in protest.
GHADA SHAHBANDAR: Up to 80 percent of the judiciary have refused to supervise the referendum. As a result, the High Elections Committee had to put in place people who are not really from the judiciary. Today we’re getting lots of complaints that in Asyut, for example, those supervising the boxes are school teachers, government employees, university professors—definitely not from the judiciary.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Despite a low voter turnout of just over 30 percent, long lines snaked out of polling stations, and voting hours had to be extended. In Sayeda Zeinab, a working-class district of Cairo, one of the voters saying no in the referendum said the process had been rushed and that there wasn’t enough time to discuss the text.
CONSTITUTION OPPONENT 2: [translated] We should reach out to the poor and ignorant, especially that we have a high percentage of poor, we have a high percentage of illiterate. And the constitution is not for you to just read. You want to discuss it with someone who understands, someone educated. But they didn’t give us a chance.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Other voters say they support the constitution because they want stability, and they want to end the transition. They say the president deserves a chance.
CONSTITUTION SUPPORTER 2: [translated] I said yes. And it is honorable for every Egyptian to say yes. Democracy is not putting pressure on someone so that he leaves. Democracy means you give a chance. And there is a ballot box every four years, according to the laws. If someone wants to give their opinion, they can put it into the ballot box.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Many of the voters today see this referendum as one not just on the constitution, but on President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. After five months in office, this is the biggest test for the president and his group. Several miles to the north lies Shubra, a neighborhood that is home to the largest concentration of Copts, Egypt’s Christian minority. Numerous voters there express concerns with the draft constitution.
CONSTITUTION OPPONENT 3: [translated] This constitution doesn’t fulfill the desires of all the people, of all groups. The church refuse. Civil parties refuse. Seculars refuse. How can we say yes to something that not all people agree on?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Yet other voters say they see little alternative.
CONSTITUTION SUPPORTER 3: [translated] I would say yes because, unfortunately, I haven’t found anyone who said no that has convinced me of anything. All of them either didn’t listen or said things not in the constitution. We have to say yes for this country that is about to fall down.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Many of those voting against the constitution voiced concerns about the fairness of the poll and the potential for vote rigging.
GHADA SHAHBANDAR: We, as monitors, have filed many complaints over the poor organization of the first referendum, parliamentarian elections and the presidential elections. This referendum is by far the worst we have ever monitored. And it comes at the worst times ever.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Regardless of the final outcome of the referendum, the crisis of the last three weeks will likely affect Egypt for some time to come. And the struggle for change that ignited a revolution nearly two years ago continues.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif Abdel Kouddous, with Hany Massoud, in Cairo. According to unofficial preliminary results, the constitutional referendum passed the first round with 57 percent of the vote. Second round is Saturday. Human rights groups have called for a revote.