Polling stations filled to the brim early Tuesday when two days of voting began for Egypt’s referendum on a new constitution. A special committee drafted the 69-page document in the months after last year’s popular uprising and military-backed removal of the elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi.

On both days, close to 400,000 police and army forces were deployed nationwide to protect long queues from expected clashes with Brotherhood protesters. Tuesday was more violent than yesterday, with a reported 11 killed and the interim government saying the Brotherhood was responsible. Arrests over the two days exceed 300.

While the Muslim Brotherhood boycotted the referendum, urging its supporters to besiege voting stations and stop the voting process, the atmosphere at voting sites was generally more festival than fear. “Everyone was so happy, even dancing, and a policeman kissed my daughter,” said Yvonne, who was one of the first to vote in Egypt’s northern city of Alexandria. Another voter, Mervat, said the mood was buoyant, with children singing and carrying pictures of the army chief, General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

The referendum was as much a vote for Sisi as it was for the constitution. If the “yes” count is as high, the General may be inspired to stand for president in elections later this year.

Two campaigns for Sisi have been pressing him to do so, and other participants in the presidential election that Morsi won in 2012 — such as former foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak, Amr Moussa, and Leftist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi — have vowed their support if he takes up the challenge.

After Morsi was dumped on July 3 last year and replaced by a military-endorsed interim government (complete with road map for constitutional, parliamentary and presidential elections), Sisi ruled out running for president. Since then, however, with his media-fuelled popularity growing beyond rock star proportions, he’s become coy, although still reluctant to give a definitive answer.

“When people came out on June 30 last year to get rid of President Morsi, General Sisi asked for our help to fight the terrorists and all of Egypt asked him to save them from the Muslim Brotherhood,” said voter Yvonne. “And he saved us. He’s the strongest one, and we need him for president.”

While the Muslim Brotherhood (including its multiple organisations) is now officially banned and designated a terrorist organisation, its refusal to accept what happened to Morsi and continue protesting has divided the nation. The brutal dispersal of their protest camps at Rabaa-al-Adawiya Mosque and Nahda Square in Cairo last August, in which up to 800 or more killed by security forces, was also a shock to the movement and left little incentive for reconciliation.

There are 95 million people in Egypt, and it is fair to say that a huge percentage are sick of the Brotherhood and have little sympathy for those killed and still being killed. Egyptians, especially the older ones, are also weary of almost three years of protests following the 2011 revolution that saw the back of Mubarak. The younger ones, who may have more sympathy but diminishing hope from January 25, are stuck between a rock and hard place if they reject the interim government and the prospect of Sisi running for president.

The official banning of protests, with automatic punishment of long jail sentences, including “life” (25 years), has also raised their blood over being denied a voice on the street. Those who defy the rule are being caught up in the sweep against the Brotherhood.

Morsi himself has been locked away for more than six months and now sits in Borg Al Arab prison near Alexandria awaiting three separate trials, all of which could result in the death penalty. For the referendum this week, security forces also honed in on Morsi’s village, el-Adwa, where there was palpable fear among  residents. Few voters were in sight, and nobody wanted to talk.

French journalist Pauline Garaude said that when she approached a group of women in el-Adwa they ran away scared. Another woman was frightened that her 17-year-old daughter would be arrested if the police caught her talking to a foreigner.

Foreigners have again been targeted since Morsi’s demise, with the government re-broadcasting an advertisement warning that they may be spies and many foreign journalists detained for writing stories that don’t please the government.

Whatever the official count, when the figures are released today, the referendum euphoria is unlikely to last. The Muslim Brotherhood may be beaten, wounded and defiant, but there are many Egyptians unhappy with the status quo and the prospect of a return to “military” rule. When and if they decide to rally is unknown, but there are signs that more strife is bubbling below the surface and will eventually rise.

January 25 activist Mohamed Khalil refused to vote yesterday because of the protest ban, the wholesale arrest of innocent people who expected to have a voice after Mubarak lost power, and a society fuelled by fear. “All the people voting now will come back and say we were right not to support what is happening in Egypt today but it may take time because they have been brainwashed into thinking there is only one way.” he said.

“Also if Sisi runs for president he will be declaring for all that June 30 and the removal of Morsi was a coup.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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