December 14, 2012 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 911

Ahead Of Egypt's Constitutional Referendum: Popular Campaigns For And Against The Constitution

December 14, 2012 | By H. Varulkar and N. Shamni*
Egypt | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 911


Ahead of Egypt's constitutional referendum, scheduled to take place on December 15 and December 22, 2012, the two main camps in the country – those in favor of approving the current draft constitution and those against it – have launched intensive efforts and campaigns aimed at persuading the Egyptian public to vote "yes" or "no" in the referendum. In addition, mass demonstrations have been held by both camps in the recent days.[1]

The camp supporting the constitution, comprising mainly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and the majority of the Salafi streams in the country, has managed to coordinate its efforts and launch a massive joint campaign[2] aimed at persuading the public to endorse the constitution. This campaign includes holding conferences and symposia across Egypt; training thousands of MB activists to promote the constitution, some of whom are even going door to door, according to reports; and also recruiting mosque preachers and satellite channels in the efforts to persuade the public. Especially prominent in this campaign are the attempts to appeal to the average citizen and to impress upon him the economic and social advantages of supporting the constitution.

In contrast to the unified pro-constitution camp, the opposition organizations that oppose the constitution, headed by the National Salvation Front, have been inconsistent and uncertain, especially in deciding whether to boycott the referendum altogether or to merely urge the citizens to vote against the constitution. Only on December 12, three days before the start of the referendum, did the National Salvation Front officially declare that it would participate in the referendum (on certain conditions) and vote "no." The oppositionists' efforts to persuade the public mainly took the form of online campaigns on social networks, as well as flyers and pamphlets distributed in the streets.

Another element in Egypt with considerable influence on the referendum is the Judges Club, which announced on December 12 that 90% of its members refused to oversee the referendum. It was the shortage of judges to oversee the voting that prompted Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi to decide that the referendum would be held on two consecutive Saturdays (December 15 and December 22). The first round of voting will be held in 10 provinces with a total of 26 million eligible voters,[3] and, according to the chairman of the Supreme Elections Committee, which is to oversee the referendum, this round of voting will be monitored by 7,000 judges.[4] It should be noted that the Egyptian nationals abroad started voting on December 12, 2012.[5]

The authorities have taken several measures to ensure high voter turnout. The government announced that December 15 would be a holiday for all civil servants. It was also announced that citizens who failed to vote would be fined 500 Egyptian liras, a deterrent measure that is quite customary in Egypt and which often remains unimplemented. In addition, Mursi ordered the armed forces to join the police in securing the streets during the referendum, and authorized them to arrest citizens without a warrant.[6]

It should be mentioned that in the last two weeks, the Egyptian media has been reporting that fake copies of the draft constitution, with distortions in various articles, have been circulating in Egypt's streets. Constituent Assembly secretary-general 'Amr Darrag said that these fake copies are being handed out for free or sold in book shops and metro stations, and stressed that the genuine copy of the draft constitution is the one that was posted November 30, 2012 on the assembly's official website, which "bears the signature of Constitution Assembly chairman and advisor Hossam Al-Ghariani on each of its pages." He promised that legal measures would be taken against anyone involved in circulating fake copies of the draft constitution.[7]

Despite the informational campaigns and activities of the two rival camps, recent reports and articles in the Egyptian media question the extent of the public's familiarity with the draft constitution and its articles. According to a survey conducted by the Basira company, 73% of Egyptians have not read the draft constitution at all, 20% have read parts of it, and only 7% have read it in full. The company director explained that the survey was conducted on December 5-6 among 2,234 citizens in all of Egypt's provinces, and added that 57% of the respondents agreed that the 15-day period between the announcement of the referendum and the referendum itself was not sufficient for the public to familiarize themselves with the constitution. Moreover, 25% did not know when the referendum is scheduled to take place, and 14% were not aware that a referendum was even set to take place.[8]

In a street survey conducted by the liberal Egyptian TV channel Al-Nahar, the majority of respondents said that they were not familiar with the constitution and its articles. Only a minority knew that Article 2 – which is the focus of a political and public debate in the country – defines the principals of the Islamic shari'a as the main source of legislation. Polls conducted by other TV channels and websites yielded similar results. In a survey conducted on the YouTube channel of the Al-Watan daily, 25 of the 50 respondents answered that they had not yet decided how to vote.[9]

This report reviews the efforts of the constitution proponents and opponents to persuade the public to vote for and against the constitution, respectively.

Constitution Proponents: Informational/Preaching Campaign In Favor Of The Constitution

Since President Muhammad Mursi decided to bring the draft constitution to referendum on December 15, 2012, the pro-constitution camp, comprising mainly the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and Salafi elements in the country, has launched intensive joint efforts to convince the Egyptian public to vote "yes" on the constitution. These efforts include holding conventions and training activists to persuade the public, as well as activity by mosque preachers and propaganda on satellite TV channels associated with the Islamic streams.

"Yes to the Constitution"[10]

Coordinating Informational Efforts And Organizing Conventions To Familiarize Citizens With The Constitution

The MB's Freedom and Justice party and the Salafi Al-Nour party announced they would coordinate their informational efforts in advance of the referendum in an attempt to persuade millions of Egyptians to vote in favor of the constitution. As part of these efforts, they have established a joint central committee to direct their activity in various provinces, which includes holding popular conventions and symposia across Egypt attended by Salafi clerics, and circulating flyers and pamphlets. According to the organizers, the aim of this activity is "to acquaint the public with the content of the constitution and thwart attempts by libertine secularists to distort its image."[11]

7,000 MB Activists Trained To Promote The Constitution

The MB and its party have formulated a plan called "Know Your Constitution," aimed at recruiting as many constitution supporters as possible. A senior source in the MB told the independent Egyptian daily Al-Watan that the plan, which was inaugurated in all MB movement and party branches in Egypt, "was launched three weeks ago, and involves 7,000 activists who have been educated on all the constitution's articles and on how to respond to any negative claims about it." They have been instructed to spread their message among several "circles" of people: "first, their [immediate] family, then [more distant] relatives, neighbors and coworkers, and finally the public at large." According to the MB source, the plan also includes printing copies of the constitution to provide every citizen with an accurate version, since opponents of the constitution have been distributing fake copies that include false articles. The source added that the MB newspaper would publish a daily supplement with all articles of the constitution. He denied claims that the MB is using religion in its campaign, such as a promise of paradise for constitution supporters or the threat of hell for its opponents.[12]

According to a report, activists of the MB, its Freedom and Justice party and the Al-Nour party are going door to door in attempt to persuade citizens to support the constitution.[13]

The MB website features numerous materials urging readers to support the constitution and emphasizing it will bring Egypt stability.[14] The movement has also opened a special website[15] promoting the constitution, with information and FAQs, as well as a series of animated videos explaining how it ensures freedom of speech, equality among citizens, and the rights of farmers and workers (e.g., by capping the salaries of senior functionaries and guaranteeing vacation rights, social security, the right to strike, etc).

From video on the advantages of the constitution[16]

Freedom and Justice Party banner: "Know Your Constitution."[17]

Involving Mosque Preachers In The Campaign

In addition to the informational campaign and conventions in various provinces, the MB leadership, along with the Shura Council of the Salafi clerics, instructed mosque preachers to use Friday sermons and mosque lessons to acquaint the public with the constitution, and to urge it to vote "yes." It should be mentioned that this move contravenes explicit orders from the Ministry of Religious Endowments, which has forbidden preachers to mention the referendum in any way, positive or negative, or to address political matters in Friday sermons and mosque lessons.[18]

In a memo, the head of the MB preaching department, Sheikh 'Abd Al-Khaliq Hassan Al-Sharif, determined that "clarifying the truth about the constitution and the importance of voting for it from mosque pulpits and during religious lessons is a form of preaching for Allah." Al-Sharif explained that the constitution is a matter that concerns all Muslims, and stressed its Islamic foundation, saying: "We have a constitution that supports the shari'a and will guarantee the implementation of Allah's shari'a. For the first time in a Muslim country, we find a constitution that supports the Sunnis, and which turns the juridical and universal principles that were created by, and borrowed from, the way of the Sunnis into the principles on which legislation is based."[19]

MB website: "2012 Egyptian constitution – vote 'yes' in the December 15 referendum"[20]

Religious Satellite Channels: Vote "Yes"

Another component in the campaign of the constitution proponents is the intensive use of Egypt's religious TV channels. Upon President Mursi's announcement of the referendum, the religious satellite channels Al-Hafez, Al-Rahma, Al-Nass, and Al-Shabbab changed their broadcast schedules and began intensive broadcasts to encourage viewers to vote for the constitution. Al-Nass TV hosted figures who praised Mursi's decisions, especially regarding the referendum, and explained that the constitution would bring stability and calm to Egypt. Al-Rahma aired segments from a speech by Sheikh Muhammad Hassan during the mass protests outside Cairo University, in which he stressed the Islamists' desire to implement the shari'a and praised Mursi's decisions, which he said were meant to defend Egypt from various plots. Al-Hafez TV has a permanent banner on the bottom of the screen showing the results of a poll conducted among its viewers, indicating that 98% of them intend to vote for the constitution. Misr 25 TV, which is close to the MB, also broadcast pro-constitution programs, which stressed that "the Egyptian people will prove to its opponents that it supports the constitution and endorses it."[21]

Activity On Facebook

The pro-constitution camp also utilized Facebook in its campaign. Facebook pages associated with the MB's Freedom and Justice party replaced their cover photos and profile pictures with images conveying consent to the constitution.

Profile picture of the Freedom and Justice party's official Facebook page: "I Agree"[22]

Facebook page associated with the Freedom and Justice party: "Yes to the constitution, for the sake of stability and for building up the state institutions"[23]

These Facebook pages also featured materials explaining why the public should vote in favor of the constitution. One article stated that the draft constitution limits the president's powers by 40%, for example by stripping him of the authority to dissolve the People's Assembly without a referendum.

"Why should we say "yes" to the constitution? Because it limits the president's powers by 40%"[24]

The Facebook page of the Salafi Al-Nour party likewise dedicated itself to applauding the draft constitution. The page featured articles directed to the man on the street, explaining that the constitution protects all citizens and will benefit Egypt in several ways: by bringing the interim stage to a close, by limiting the president's power so as to prevent tyranny and fight corruption, by setting a minimum and maximum wage in order to ensure a dignified life for the Egyptian citizen, and by ensuring the rights of non-Muslim Egyptians, namely the Jews and Christians.

"Yes to the constitution, in order to ensure and protect the rights of the Egyptian worker and farmer, so as to ensure them a dignified life"[25]

Banner listing reasons for supporting the constitution[26]

Constitution Opponents: Indecision On Whether To Take Part In Referendum; Online Campaign Against Constitution

Unlike the organized and coordinated activities of the constitution proponents to persuade the Egyptian public to vote "yes" in the referendum, the opposition's activities have been uncoordinated and hesitant. Until recently, the opposition forces had not adopted a clear stance on whether to participate in the referendum and vote against the constitution, or to boycott it. According to several reports, disputes broke out over this issue within the National Salvation Front, which was established by Mohamed ElBaradei, 'Amr Moussa, and Hamdin Sabahi and which represents the forces opposed to the constitution. A week before the referendum, several members of the front spoke in favor of boycotting the referendum altogether. [27]

Eventually, however, on December 12, 2012, only three days before the start of the referendum, the National Salvation Front announced it would call on the public to participate in the referendum and vote "no," but stipulated several conditions to participation in it, in order to ensure a fair referendum: full legal oversight of every voting station and security presence both outside and inside each one; international and local oversight of the referendum by NGOs; the referendum subcommittees will issue a detailed announcement of the results immediately after the counting of the ballots; and the referendum will be completed within a single day. The Front announced that if these conditions were not met in full by the morning of December 15, when the referendum is set to begin, its members would boycott the referendum and call on the public to do so as well.[28]

Amin Salah, columnist for the daily Al-Yawm Al-Sabi', claimed in an article that the division among the constitution's opponents was working against them and strengthening the rival camp: "...The camp opposed to the constitution is generally divided into three main groups: the first stresses the importance of showing up at the [voting stations] and voting 'no' in the referendum on the constitution; the second emphasizes the importance of boycotting [the referendum altogether]; and the third will sit at home, indifferent to what is happening around it... As a result, the votes of the camp opposed to the constitution will be divided, and the vote[s] of the camp supporting it will be strengthened."[29]

Owing to the uncertain stance of the camp opposed to the constitution, its campaign has seemed far less focused and powerful than that of the rival camp. Unlike the latter camp, it has not conducted broad public activity and staged popular rallies and conferences against the constitution. Its activity has mostly been confined to joint demonstrations by opposition organizations against the referendum and against the Mursi government, such as the one held December 11 outside the presidential palace in Cairo.[30]

December 11, 2012 rally outside presidential palace under the slogan "No to the Constitution"[31]

Facebook Campaigns; Distribution Of Leaflets, Flyers

In addition, some opposition organizations launched campaigns, relying primarily on Facebook pages featuring anti-constitution content. Many such Facebook pages adopted a uniform profile picture: the word 'No' on a red background (see below). Additionally, opposition activists handed out flyers in the streets and at demonstrations explaining the articles of the constitution they considered negative, and exhorting the citizens to vote against it.

Profile picture adopted by opposition groups on Facebook[32]

April 6 Youth Campaign: "Your Constitution Does Not Represent Us"

One such opposition campaign was led by the April 6 Youth movement under the slogan "Your Constitution Does Not Represent Us." The campaign's stated goal is "to familiarize citizens with the problematic articles of the constitution and with the flaws it contains as a result of the rush to hold the referendum on it despite its controversial nature," and to convince them to vote against it, as it "endangers the demands of the revolution."[33]

Facebook page of April 6 Youth[34]

Logo of "Your Constitution Does Not Represent Us" campaign[35]

The Facebook pages of the April 6 Youth and of ElBaradei's Al-Dustour party feature a flyer listing their reasons for opposing the draft constitution. The flyer, written in spoken rather than literary Arabic in an appeal to the average citizen, explains their stance on several of the constitution's controversial aspects, such as the article empowering the president to appoint the heads of the apparatuses that oversee him, as well as the prosecutor general and the judges of the Supreme Constitutional Court – which, they claim, creates "a new dictator." The flyer also focuses on articles pertaining to the citizens' welfare, claiming that the constitution does not protect the average citizen and worker and does not ensure social welfare for all.

Flyer listing reasons for rejecting the constitution[36]

Another flyer posted by the April 6 Youth, titled "Why We Will Vote 'No,'" likewise points out the problematic articles of the draft constitution.

Flyer listing problematic articles of the constitution[37]

The campaign against the constitution was also taken up by the Facebook page "We Are All Khaled Sa'id," which was instrumental in organizing the mass protests of the January 25, 2011 revolution and has some 2.5 million supporters. The page has changed its profile picture to the 'No' logo, and features calls to reject the constitution and publications critical of it.

"We Are All Khaled Sa'id" Facebook page[38]

* H. Varulkar is Director of Research at MEMRI; N. Shamni is a research fellow at MEMRI.

[2] Not party to this campaign are some radical Salafi groups, which reject the constitution as insufficiently Islamic, including the Ulema Al-Sunni Front, the supporters of Hazem Abu Isma'il (known as "the Hazemoun"), and the Al-Sharnoubiyya Sufi order. Al-Dustour Al-Asli (Egypt), December 10, 2012; Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 4, 2012.

[3], December 11, 2012; Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 12, 2012. Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 14, 2012.

[4] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 14, 2012.

[5] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 12, 2012.

[6] Al-Hayat (London), December 11, 2012.

[7] Darrag explained that the fake copy states, for example, that former Egyptian presidents would be appointed to the Shura Council, that the president has the right to relinquish parts of the homeland, and that the legal age of marriage for girls would be lowered to nine. Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 5, 2012.

[8] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 8, 2012.

[10], December 10, 2012.

[11] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 3, 2012.

[12] Al-Watan (Egypt), December 4, 2012. Many have accused Islamic elements of using religion to advance their political agenda. Among them was former deputy prime minister Dr. 'Ali Al-Silmi, who complained that political Islam elements are using Islam to promote the constitution, as they did before the March 2011 referendum, by claiming that voting for the constitution is obedience to shari'a while rejecting it constitutes lack of faith, when the fact is that there is no connection between religion and the constitution. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 3, 2012.

[13] Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 14, 2012.

[14], December 4, 11, 2012.


[16] To view the clip, click here.

[17], October 31, 2012.

[18] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 2, 2012

[19], December 3, 2012.

[20], December 9, 2012.

[21] Al-Masri Al-Yawm (Egypt), December 2, 2012.

[27], December 9, 2012; Al-Watan (Egypt), December 12, 2012; Al-Wafd (Egypt), December 10, 2012; Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 10, 2012.

[28], Al-Ahram (Egypt), December 12, 2012.

[29] Al-Yawm Al-Sabi' (Egypt), December 4, 2012.

[30] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), December 12, 2012.

[33], December 10, 2012.

[35], December 10, 2012.

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