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Middle East

Egypt's referendum: hunger for stability

Despite mass protests by the opposition, Egypt is going ahead with its referendum on a new constitution on Saturday. Especially poor, uneducated and deeply religious citizens are likely to be persuaded by the Islamists.

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Armut in Kairo Imbaba

Umm Mohamed is sitting down by the roadside, the hem of her ankle-long dress already stained from the dust and dirt in the road. Imbaba is one of Cairo's poor quarters: There is garbage everywhere and the sewage system is anything but functional. Nearby, odorous waste water is running out of one of the houses, directly into the street.

Ready for business, Umm Mohamed has arranged her newspapers neatly and in order on a cardboard box. A few days ago - like all other newspaper sellers throughout the country - she also started selling small books that contain the new draft constitution. "People buy it to understand what the talk is all about," Umm Mohamed explains, "then they know: everything is good and in order."

That doesn't mean that Umm Mohamed has read the draft constitution herself. She is one of the 40 percent of illiterate Egyptians. When it comes to participating in the referendum, each voting ballot contains symbols and colours intended to help them filling it out. Umm Mohamed already knows that she is going to tick "Yes."

"For the country to be better off, at last", she says, explaining her decision. Mohammed Morsi is a good man who knows the meaning of Islam, she adds. His opponents, on the other hand, only spread rumors to incite the current "confusion." Morsi, she is convinced, means well for the people.

Imbaba cattle market

At the Imbaba cattle market, too, people hope for economic improvements

Poverty and illiteracy

The pious president is popular in Imbaba - unlike his critics. The poor quarter is a stronghold of the Egyptian Islamists. Wherever people are poor and without education, but at the same deeply religious, it is easy for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince them voting for a constitution that follows the Shariah. It would simply be "god's law" - that's what the radical Salafists, too, boil each discussion down to, whenever questions of "believing or not believing" come up. In addition, ample use is made of the argument that with all their protests, the opponents of the new constitution would only excacerbate the country's economic crisis.

Supporters of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi perform prayers during a rally held to show support to him in Cairo December 11, 2012. The banners read, Yes to the constitutions! and Yes to the legitimacy! REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

Supporters of President Morsi pray at a pro-constitution rally

"We don't want any more unrest - we want to live," says a man who complains about meager salaries, low retirement wages and expensive groceries at the shops. He says he is going to vote for the new constitution in the hope that the economy will pick up.

One of the garbage collectors agrees: "I want the new constitution. We've had enough talking and fighting against each other. Now we need to have order in the country." He, too, complains about his salary, around 300 Egyptian Pounds - the equivalent of 40 euros ($52). He has problems providing a living for his family, let alone for his daughters' wedding.

Foreign media: 'part of the conspiracy'

One has to look hard to find someone in Imbaba who is against the constitution. One of them is a doctor who says that he knows he's part of a minority here. He blames it on the quarter's rampant poverty - and the Islamists practice of bribing the population: "If you give them chocolate for free, a kilo of sugar, a kilo of butter - of course they'll say 'yes' then," he says. On top of that, he says, they tell people that it's in the interest of Islam to vote for the constitution.

"They shouldn't tell people that those who say 'yes' will go to heaven," the doctor says angrily, as he gets involved in an argument with a woman in the middle of the street. Dressed in traditional Islamic garb, she announces that "for Egypt to move forward, it needs the Shariah." He counters by asking how economic development could be linked to the Shariah; after all, it's not like Egyptians have suddenly become non-believers.

A family of anti-Morsi protesters hold signs reading, Leave! No constitution in Tahrir Square in Cairo December 11, 2012. Nine people were hurt when gunmen fired at protesters camping in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Tuesday, according to witnesses and the Egyptian media, as the opposition called for a major demonstration it hopes will force President Mohamed Mursi to postpone a referendum on a new constitution. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

A family of anti-Morsi protesters hold signs reading "Leave! No constitution" in Tahrir Square

the argument in the middle of the street gets louder and starts to attract attention: Another - so far completely uninvolved - woman threatens to call the police and attempts to confiscate the reporter's microphone and recording device. As a citizen of Egypt, she declares, this would be her duty. This shows that the Islamists' rhetoric that foreign media are part of a conspiracy against president Morsi does have an effect on people.

In the small Imbaba street, the mood is turning hostile. Young, bearded men start to appear, preventing passer-bys from voicing their opinion. They themselves refuse to be interviewed.

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