Egyptians under pressure to vote ‘yes’ in referendum on constitution

Muslim Brotherhood boycotts the poll that is expected to set the seal on overthrow of former president Mohamed Morsi

Egyptians will vote this week for the first time in the post-Morsi era, in a referendum that the new establishment hopes will formally ratify a fresh constitution, as well as demonstrate public support for the ex-president’s army-backed removal last July.

The government and its supporters seek a high turnout and a strong “yes” vote in a two-day poll that starts on Tuesday. Amid wall-to-wall publicity for the yes campaign, the planned deployment of hundreds of thousands of soldiers and the intimidation of government critics, the referendum is expected to herald the ratification of Egypt’s third constitution in four years.

The yes campaign is backed by an unlikely coalition of secular parties, pro-army businessmen – and ultra-conservative Islamists from the Salafist al-Nour party, former allies of Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Supporters hope a yes vote will pave the way for presidential and parliamentary elections – the first step in a plan that they say will re-establish economic and political stability.

“‘Yes’ means we can fulfil the roadmap’s milestones – we can show Egyptians and the world that we are fulfilling our commitment to a democratic state,” said Ahmad Sarhan, a spokesman for the party of Ahmed Shafik, the man whom Morsi defeated in the 2012 presidential elections, and who was prime minister under Morsi’s predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Billboards bearing adverts for the yes campaign appeared even before the draft text was completed by a 50-strong army-appointed committee in December – indicating how some supporters deem its enactment to be more important than its contents. The multi-million-pound campaign is hard to avoid both in the street and on television; it implies that a vote for the constitution is a patriotic act.

Supporters of the text praise it for largely removing pro-Islamist sections from Morsi’s version, and for paving the way to better education, healthcare, and local governance, as well as better rights for women and the disabled. For their part, the Salafist al-Nour party has turned a blind eye to the scrapping of Islamist clauses so that they can continue to play a role in Egypt’s political life, despite a crackdown on other Islamist groups.

Suppression has centred on the Muslim Brotherhood. Thousands of Brotherhood members have been arrested or killed since July, while they were recently declared a terrorist group by their successors in power. The group is boycotting the referendum as its members fear any kind of participation would bestow legitimacy on Morsi’s overthrow, and hope a low turnout will highlight his popularity.

Mohamed Abdelmahboud, a Muslim Brotherhood member who was protesting against the referendum in a northern province, said: “We are absolutely boycotting it – whatever [the draft constitution] says. I didn’t even read it, and no one else did.”

A small no-campaign exists, consisting of leftist and secular groups such as the 6 April movement – which have consistently opposed successive authoritarian regimes under Mubarak, the military high command, and Morsi – and the moderate Islamist party, Strong Egypt.

Opponents of the draft text say it is not the revolutionary document they expected after the removal of two presidents. In particular, they fear clauses that allow for civilians to be tried in army courts, curb workers’ rights, and limit religious freedoms to members of the three Abrahamic religions. According to Wael Eskandar, an activist and opponent of the constitution, dozens of the rights granted by the constitution can be circumvented by parliamentary laws – potentially rendering them meaningless.

Officials say citizens are free to vote how they wish, but many “no” supporters complain they have been prevented from campaigning in the open. Three Strong Egypt members were arrested for distributing posters in central Cairo last week, and the party has cancelled four campaign rallies because of intimidation, a party spokesman said. Dozens of campaigners against military trials were also detained at a protest. As a result, there is barely any sign of a no campaign in the street or the media.Eighty international observers will monitor the election. But in a blow to the poll’s credibility, the seasoned US-based election observers, the Carter Centre, will send only a small delegation – after being “deeply concerned” by the “narrowed political space surrounding the upcoming referendum”.

“The rhetoric is that despite the constitution’s flaws, the only course that we have available is to vote yes,” said Eskandar. “But a constitution that does not reflect the aspirations of the people will not bring stability – and the fear that the Brotherhood will come back if people say no to the constitution is baseless.” © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds