Egyptians are set to vote on their second constitution in as many years on Tuesday and Wednesday in a referendum that is widely seen as the first electoral test for the country’s powerful military chief since he ousted Mohammed Morsi last year.
The vote comes just days after Egypt’s army chief, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, gave the strongest indication so far of his intention to run for president.
A “Yes” vote for the new constitution – along with a respectable turnout – would be viewed as granting legitimacy to the political process that has been put in place since Morsi’s ouster in July.
“This referendum isn’t only going to be a test of whether people approve of the newly amended constitution. If, as expected, it is a resounding “Yes” then it will give legitimacy – through the ballot box – to the ousting of Mohammed Morsi and the new regime that the army has put in place,” said FRANCE 24’s Kathryn Stapley, reporting from Cairo on the eve of the vote.
In the lead-up to the January 14-15 vote, the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities have been awash with billboards and posters bearing a large tick for “Yes”. Television ads linking the “Yes” vote with stability and security have dominated the airwaves with messages such as, “A Yes to the constitution is a No to terrorism” and “Yes, we love our country”.
In sharp contrast, there have been few – if any – visible signs of a “No” campaign on the streets of the Egyptian capital. At least seven activists attempting to campaign for a “No” vote have been arrested earlier this month, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
‘The turnout will be all important’
With the now banned Muslim Brotherhood calling for a boycott of the constitutional referendum, all eyes are on the turnout in the two-day vote.
“The turnout will be all important here,” explained Stapley. “The authorities will be looking for a turnout of more than the 32% that voted in the 2012 referendum.”
The new, 247-article draft constitution is being offered as a replacement for the suspended 2012 constitution, which was drawn up under Morsi’s term in office.
“Those who support this constitution say it’s a vast improvement on the 2012 charter,” said Stapley. “It certainly limits the scope of Islamic law, which rights advocates have been saying is a step forward.”
Criticisms over lack of civilian oversight of military
But rights groups have also criticised the 2013 draft constitution for not providing for any civilian oversight of the military.
In a report published over the weekend, the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) expressed “profound reservations” about the constitution drafted by a 50-member panel of mostly secular politicians.
Among the more contentious clauses are Article 204 – which legalises military trials for civilians – and Article 201, which states that the defense minister must be chosen from the armed forces, thereby precluding the possibility of a civilian defense minister.
Civil society activists have also voiced concerns over Article 234, which states that the armed forces must approve the defense minister for the next two presidential terms.
In a statement posted last week, the Atlanta-based Carter Center cited “the polarized environment and the narrowed political space surrounding the upcoming referendum, as well as the lack of an inclusive process for drafting and publicly debating the draft constitution” as being of particular concern.
Tight security, supportive electorate
While the Muslim Brotherhood has vowed to stage mass demonstrations supporting a boycott, many observers are not sure if the 85-year-old organisation – which has been labeled a terrorist group – will be able to mobilize its supporters following a government crackdown and the arrests of senior Brotherhood leaders.
Security has been tightened for the two-day vote, with 160,000 soldiers – including elite paratroopers and commandos backed by armored vehicles and helicopters – deployed to protect polling stations and voters. Around 200,000 police officers are also being posted across the country, said the Associated Press, citing an unnamed Egyptian security source.
Despite the security fears and criticisms of rights groups, many Egyptians have said they are eager to vote in the January 14-15 referendum, in a country that has grown weary of demonstrations and political upheavals over the past three years.
“It’s a constitution that provides everything for the Egyptian citizen and we want the country to move forward,” said a supporter of the Islamist al-Nour party at a gathering in the lead-up to the referendum. The Salafist al-Nour is the only Islamist party calling on its supporters to back the 2013 draft constitution.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 at a rally on the outskirts of Cairo, al-Nour member and former MP Ashraf Thabet expressed confidence that the draft constitution would be approved.
“I believe that the Egyptian people will go out to vote,” said Thabet. “This vote is a very big step to achieve security and stability for Egyptian society.”
Date created : 2014-01-13