Tensions boil as Egypt votes on new constitution

The World

Ibrahim and Mohammed run a kids’ clothing store in Cairo. They’re sick of the protests and they hope Egyptians vote ‘no’ on the constitutional referendum. (Photo by Matthew Bell.)

Egypt is going through its toughest political crisis since the end of Hosni Mubarak's rule some two years ago.

The referendum on a constitutional referendum began on Saturday. It will happen in two stages, with the second day of voting scheduled one week later. Signs indicate that the referendum was passing in the first round of voting, but Egyptian officials have said they'll release no results until the election is completed, next weekend.

The country is divided. On one side are Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters. On the other, a political opposition led by secular and liberal politicians calling for Egyptians to vote ‘no’ in the referendum.

There were more demonstrations on Friday, for and against the draft constitution, in the Egyptian capital. In Egypt’s second city of Alexandria, clashes between rival political factions broke out, with several people injured.

Heliopolis is a well-to-do area on the outskirts of Cairo, known for its wide boulevards and palatial villas. It has long been home to the rich and powerful, including former president Mubarak. The presidential palace is also here — where Mohammed Morsi now lives.

For the last couple of weeks, the commercial and residential part of Heliopolis near the palace has found itself on the front lines of the political fight for Egypt’s future. Unfamiliar sights include mass protests, tanks positioned on street corners, occasional violent street battles and roads blocked by concrete barricades and shipping containers.

A retired Egyptian army general, who didn’t want to speak on the record about politics, was on his way into the swanky Heliopolis Athletic Club. The man said he voted for Ahmed Shafiq in the presidential election, Mubarak’s last prime minister. And that he was no fan of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Shafiq voters and the revolutionaries are united,” he said, apparently confident that the Islamists in positions of power in Egypt now find themselves with their backs against the wall.

That contention, however, is also a talking point for supporters of Morsi and the Brotherhood. They say elements of the former Mubarak regime are working with the political opposition to bring back the old regime.

At the Grandpa Hussein toy shop, owner Mustapha Hussein said he didn't want to talk about politics at all. But the protests near the palace, he said, are killing his business.

“Our customers are middle class people who usually come here with their kids,” Hussein said. “When the protesters show up, shoppers get scared away and we just close the store.”

Hopefully, he added, these demonstrations will not go on for much longer.

Waiting in line at the Abu Haidar shwarma shop was 18-year-old dentistry student Rana Ahmed, along with some of her friends, all of them in hip clothes and flashy headscarves.

“I don’t know about constitutions,” Ahmed said. “But people who do know seem think this is one of the best in the world. So, I’m going to vote yes. The country needs to move on."

Talking with people on the street in Heliopolis, it seemed pretty clear that most had not read the draft constitution themselves.

And in any case, for people like Ibrahim Ahmed, 38-year-old manager of a high-end children’s clothing shop, this is a referendum on the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which President Morsi emerged.

“The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party,” Ahmed said, “is trying to take over. President Morsi is acting like a dictator. That’s why I will be voting ‘no’ to this constitution.”

His colleagues tended to agree.

“We are Muslims,” one said. “The Muslim Brotherhood talks as if it is protecting Islamic sharia law and that we are against it.”

Mohammed wanted to emphasize that he and his colleagues support sharia, "but just not the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Down the street, at a tiny butcher shop, another young man named Mohammed was making beef sausages by hand. He concedes these are confusing times in Egypt.

“I hope the protests stop, because they’re really hurting business,” he said.

The three workers in the shop said they make a daily wage and cannot afford a slowdown.

“People should just let the president get on with his job,” Mohammed said.

Asked about the constitution, he said he didn't know much about it. But after having to close up shop early in recent days and even being hit by a rock during a demonstration, Mohammed appeared to be quite unhappy about the political fight that is playing out on the streets of Heliopolis.