It’s early morning in Egypt and there is already tension in the air. The supposed judges tasked with overseeing the constitutional referendum vote across half the country are already being reported to not be official judges, adding more fuel to a political crisis that has engulfed Egypt for the past three weeks. Fraud and voting limitation have highlighted the fears over the past week in Egypt as the controversial draft constitution is going to Egyptians for approval.
President Mohammed Mursi this last week changed the electoral law on where Egyptians can cast a ballot, which limits voters from walking into a polling station with their national ID and voting “yes” or “no” on the constitution. This is a dramatic change from March 2011’s referendum and while it has largely been ignored by media, it means that some 10 million Egyptians may not be able to cast their vote in arguably the most important moment in Egypt since the downfall of president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Observers Without Borders Director Youssef Abdel Khaliq said that as a result of these new measures, it “will deprive 10 million citizens from voting and thus lower the overall rate of participation.”
The president’s office said in a statement that the move is aimed to “avoid doubts about the fairness of the poll, as well as alleviate pressure on judges supervising the vote.”
I spoke to a number of Egyptians working in Cairo over the past few days who said they will be unable to cast their ballot in the referendum, saying it was impossible to take off two days of work to travel to their hometown. And not surprisingly many of those who are going to be barred from casting their ballots are liberals who would likely vote “no.”
One of those people I spoke with, Sherif Abbas, a 27-year-old computer engineer in Cairo, said he has to work on Saturdays and can’t leave to return to Alexandria to vote.
“I have to work and it is impossible for me to leave because it’s a job,” he said, adding that at least four other people in is Cairo office also won’t be able to leave.
And how would he vote? “I would definitely vote against the constitution because it is very dangerous for our future.”
This is a politically calculated move by Mursi, one to make certain that the controversial constitution, which limits freedom of religion, takes away women’s rights and equality and does not set stipulations on child labor – all with an Islamist feel – will go through and be approved.
But it is not unique to Egypt. In many ways, Mursi is taking another page from another political group: U.S. Republicans.
In the past few American elections, the Republican Party has passed voter regulations to make it more difficult for minorities to cast a vote, with the ultimate goal of bringing down voter turnout. History shows that across the world, the lower the number of votes cast, the likelihood of a conservative win is larger. This is no different in Egypt.
Mursi, like his Republican counterparts, is making it difficult for citizens to vote, while at the same time enabling conservative voters with new IDs – as reported over the past week, a large number of new national IDs were issued for those living in rural areas – so as to increase the number of supporters while limiting the ability for those who would vote “no” to stay away.
It should not come as a surprise that the president’s statement on the new electoral law changes are a mirror image of what the Republicans have argued over the past decade. The GOP has insisted that it just wants to protect "ballot integrity," but we all know what that means.
The Brotherhood is playing politics, and they are playing it well. By restricting the number of ballots able to be cast in this referendum, they are ensuring a referendum victory for their constitution. The left has largely left the issue aside, but as Egypt continues to push for a democratic future, this limiting of citizens ability to vote – one of the foundations for democracy – Egypt will continue to remain a massively divided country.
The Brotherhood have learned from the best manipulators and have shown savvy in creating a mythos that will enshrine them as the leaders of Egypt for years to come, even as they do not have the majority support behind them. This referendum and its voter limitations is only one part of their political machinations that threaten the very future of a pluralistic society that is Egypt.
Joseph Mayton is Editor-in-chief of the Egypt-based Bikyamasr.com and contributes regularly to Al Arabiya English. Twitter @jmayton