With only a few hours to go until the polls open in the first phase of Egypt’s referendum on a proposed constitution, tension is high. Alexandria has become a symbol of this tension when a controversial local imam, Ahmed El-Mahalawy, urged worshippers to vote yes.
Mahalawy has a long history of urging sectarian attacks against Christians and non-believers. But even in his mosque he was challenged by a worshipper who was immediately set-upon by Muslim Brotherhood worshippers who beat him.
Ultimately conflict spilled outside the mosque, including the arrival of conservative Salafists with swords and knives. A gathering of anti-constitution protesters disarmed and beat the men and torched their cars before the riot police arrived. However, as we went to press the mosque was still surrounded after the imam took several protestors hostage and tortured them.
It was unclear if any of the protesters were still inside, several had been released.
There were also other scattered reports of oppositionists being attacked and Muslim Brotherhood offices being vandalized. It’s clear that tensions across the country are extremely high.
This situation hasn’t been helped by the continuing inflammatory rhetoric by Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including President Morsy, and their Salafist allies. Morsy made a speech denouncing the opposition as counter-revolutionaries. There has been talk of thousands of martyrs and death threats against TV news anchors.
It remains to be seen what will happen when the polls open but there is every possibility, given the shambolic way that the Brotherhood and Morsy have handled the present crisis up till the present, that chaos will be the order of the day.
The sense on the ground is that few preparations have been made and that there aren’t even enough neutral observers, let alone outside observers & NGOs, to guarantee a fair vote.
With the majority of judges boycotting supervising the election Morsy had to pass a law splitting the vote up into two dates. But even with this measure to ameliorate the pressure on the few that have agreed to supervise, it is possible that there won’t be enough. It’s not even clear if the government knows who will and who won’t supervise.
"The commission has published on its website the names of judges who are scheduled to supervise the referendum, but I assure you that among those names are 2,930 judges who decided to boycott the elections' oversight," said Judges’ Club spokesperson Shady Khalifa.
It’s entirely possible that people will show up at their polling stations – if they know where they are located – and won’t be able to vote or the poll will be unsupervised. The entire legal status of this constitution, rushed through by the Brotherhood and their allies, could be called into doubt.
There is every likelihood that the Brotherhood’s heavy-handed fumbling of this self-inflicted political crisis will haunt them and that even a formal victory in the referendum will lack legitimacy. Combine this with the looming austerity measures – announced and then withdrawn by Morsy this week – and there is a recipe for further social explosions.
Whatever else happens, the Brotherhood has badly damaged their reputation. It’s not clear how they’ll recover.