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To vote or forget it?
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 26 - 05 - 2005

Dina Ezzat reads the push and pull of the constitutional amendment
"Stay at home. Do not go to the referendum."
"Do not stay at home. Vote for the future of the country." "The day of the referendum is the day when the Egyptian people have their say."
"A phony referendum and a boring play." "Boycott the Black Wednesday referendum."
"Do not miss the chance to express yourselves."
Day in and day out the "national", independent and opposition press shouted their wares. Yesterday's vote on the proposed amendment of Article 76 of the 1971 constitution -- to allow for the first-ever multi- candidate presidential elections -- was the inevitable issue dominating the papers. Al-Wafd, Al-Ahali and Al- Arabi, the mouthpieces of the three main opposition parties, the liberal Al-Wafd, the left-wing Al-Tagammu and the Nasserist Al-Arabi Al- Nasseri, were inundated with arguments in favour of a boycott the parties had announced a few weeks ago, basing their argument that the amendment was only a cosmetic change that placed far too many restrictions to allow for any genuine multi-candidate competition.
The papers carried the obvious statements reflecting their affiliations. The opposition papers were chock-full of quotes from the leaders of the parties who, in turn, were full of anti-government rhetoric. The national press dedicated oversized headlines and lengthy news stories printing every word uttered by concerned government officials and leading figures of the ruling National Democratic Party.
Consequently, by the middle of the week, it became all but pointless for the reader to venture beyond the headlines. In the national dailies, the reader was sure to come across statements on the importance of the referendum as a first step towards the full embracing of democratisation.
Here and there the reader might have spotted the occasional interesting news item. "We removed the names of two million dead citizens from the voters lists," the independent daily Nahdet Misr quoted Assistant Minister of Interior Mahrous Shabaiyek. According to Shabaiyek's statements, voters will cast their ballots in wooden boxes, not see-through caskets.
The reader must have also read statements by the grand sheikh of Al- Azhar, the mufti and the minister of Awqaf, or religious endowments, in which they described participation in the 25 May referendum as being akin to a religious duty.
Otherwise, the papers had very little to offer, especially on this issue, that could have caught the interest of a bored reader.
In the opposition press, the reader was constantly told of the failure of the regime to live up to the reform expectations of the people. Meanwhile, the independent papers took the same middle-of-the-road approach in covering the referendum story.
And what goes for the news pages applied to the opinion pages. The referendum was all over the place.
"I chose no to participate in the referendum. It does not matter if we vote or not. The decision has already been taken. Our votes do not count. The government has fixed the situation," wrote Abbas El-Tarabili, editor-in-chief of Al-Wafd, in his daily column "People's Concerns" on Tuesday.
On the same day, in the national daily Al-Akhbar, under the headline "For the sake of the future", the paper's editor, Galal Dweidar lashed at the call for a boycott. "Can we build the future of this country with such negative calls or should we go for the positive calls?... What does it mean to call on citizens to boycott the referendum when it is those very people whose opinion is needed when it comes to the issue of electing the president of the republic? It is the people who must decide."
Between the calls for participation and boycott, the reader had very little reason to keep on reading. Very few stories went beyond the scope of the argument.
This said, once in a while readers might have come across an interesting article -- even if it was based entirely on the conspiracy theory. In the weekly Al-Arabi, Ambassador Amin Yussri offered his views on what the referendum was all about: the succession of Gamal Mubarak. The writer -- who has spared no ink to attack the leadership of President Hosni Mubarak -- shared with his readers the latest version of the conspiracy theory. The amendment of Article 76, Yussri argued, was tailored in such a way that it would apply to only two candidates: the president or his son. Yussri did not offer much evidence as such; his prediction was that the amendment would "maintain a ruling regime that calls itself a republic but acts as if it were a monarchy."
Yussri expounded his argument: the question that should be asked of the people in the referendum should not concern amending Article 76. "The real question is whether you agree to have Gamal Mubarak as the next president of the republic."
As it has become normal of late, a few commentators have an unbiased view to share with their readers. Sarcastic commentator of Al-Akhbar, Ahmed Ragab, tops the short list. In his daily under-50 word box on page 2 of Al-Akhbar on Tuesday, Ragab argued that irrespective of the nature of the amendment, the train of reform was steaming ahead. "The door to political reforms has been opened with the call for the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution. This move -- which is the most significant achievement of President Hosni Mubarak -- will inevitably be followed by other steps towards reform. This is the nature of things," Ragab wrote.
According to Ragab, the domino effect was unavoidable and evolution is a process that cannot be hindered "even though some members of the ruling National Democratic Party might think otherwise."
However, the process of reform, inevitable as it may be, warned Kamel El-Zoheiri in his column in the weekly Al-Qahira, is bound to be slower than what many expected or wished. The national dialogue between government and the opposition has hit "a dead-end" and "instead of looking for answers to the pertinent questions, everybody is busy exchanging accusations."

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