CAIRO – With a presidential run by Egypt’s powerful military chief seeming more likely by the day, this week’s constitution referendum, to be held amid a massive security force deployment, is widely seen as a vote of confidence in the regime he installed last summer.
The charter is an overhaul of an Islamist-backed constitution adopted in December 2012 during the rule of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. Drafted by a 50-member panel of mostly secular-leaning politicians, it criminalizes discrimination, enshrines gender equality and guarantees a raft of freedoms and rights.
And crucially the vote, on Tuesday and Wednesday, provides the country’s increasingly popular military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with a first electoral test since he ousted Morsi in a military coup last July 3. A comfortable “yes” vote and a respectable turnout will be seen as bestowing legitimacy, while undermining the Islamists’ argument that Morsi remains the nation’s elected president.
“It is not just a referendum on the constitution. It is on many things, including el-Sissi and the fight against violence by militants,” said analyst and columnist Makram Mohammed Ahmed, who is close to the military. “I cannot imagine that a big ‘yes’ majority will automatically usher in a new legitimacy that will be swiftly recognized by the West, but it is a good constitution that must be given its due.”
With the stakes so high, authorities are undertaking a massive security operation to protect polling stations and voters. The deployment involves 160,000 soldiers, including elite paratroopers and commandos backed by armored vehicles and helicopters, military and security officials said.
An even larger number of police — over 200,000 officers — will also participate. Fearing militant attacks, troops are being stationed at airports around the country to be flown to sites of possible attacks at short notice. And military aircraft will be used to monitor rarely used desert routes to major cities, a tactic designed to stop the infiltration of militants, said the officials, who agreed to discuss the details of the operation only on condition of anonymity.
Snipers will be deployed at secret locations close to polling stations, they said. Provinces that witness major outbreaks of violence will be sealed off from the rest of the country while the police and army move to contain it.
The charter adopted under Morsi won some 64 percent of the vote on a low turnout of about 30 percent — partly caused by the then-opposition calling for a boycott of the vote.
This week, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers who are urging a boycott.
Their argument is that the entire process, beginning with the coup, is illegitimate, and they are planning mass demonstrations on voting days. Still, it is difficult to predict how effective the boycott will be, given that most of the Brotherhood’s top and midlevel leaders are either in jail or on the run. The government’s recent move to label the group a terrorist organization has in effect meant that mere membership can bring a lengthy prison sentence.
“The arrests have left entire provinces without a local leadership to organize and execute,” said a Brotherhood activist in southern Egypt, a stronghold of Islamists, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohammed, because he feared arrest. “We are heavily relying on sympathetic students, sisters and workers to lobby for a ‘no’ vote.”
To help ensure strong turnout, wealthy businessmen have been asked by local officials to fund the transport of poor voters to polling stations. The government has also decreed that voters can cast ballots wherever they happen to be on Tuesday and Wednesday, rather than at polling centers in the districts where they are registered.
While sure to boost turnout, the move also raises the specter of fraud. The government says anyone caught voting more than once will be swiftly put on trial and that a conviction will mean a prison sentence.
Since Morsi’s removal, el-Sissi has remained silent on whether he will run for president, though he told a newspaper interviewer late last year he could not rule it out. On Saturday, he moved closer to announcing his candidacy.
Addressing a crowd of military officers, police commanders, politicians, artists and writers, el-Sissi said he will run if he receives a popular mandate to do so. “I cannot turn my back on Egypt,” he said.
Close aides have said that el-Sissi will view a big “yes” majority of some 70 percent and a respectable turnout as a popular mandate for him to run.
The vote will also show how much influence supporters of ousted leader Hosni Mubarak retain after throwing their weight behind Morsi’s removal and the road map announced by el-Sissi in July.
It will also test whether the ultraconservative Islamic al-Nour Party, the military-backed regime’s unlikely ally, can succeed in rallying its skeptical supporters to a “yes” vote.
However, this week’s vote will be held in a climate that, in many ways, is a throwback to Mubarak’s days.
Many of the freedoms won by the 2011 uprising against Mubarak have been rolled back since the military coup, the brutal police tactics of the strongman’s 29-year rule are making a comeback and a climate of intolerance for dissent is growing. Liberal youth leaders have been thrown in jail and a new law places draconian conditions on allowing street protests.
A massive crackdown against Morsi’s Brotherhood continues, with thousands of members thought to be in detention. They include Morsi and almost every top Brotherhood leader.
Meanwhile, police have detained volunteers plastering fliers urging Egyptians to vote “no,” and the media, both state-owned and private, is firmly in the “yes” camp, continuously airing pro-”yes” propaganda, along with patriotic songs and films.
For his part, the 59-year-old general has urged Egyptians to vote to “chart the future of our nation and to let the world know its standing and prestige among the nations.”