x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

2013 in review: Crisis-weary Egyptians hold out for new year referendum

With violence and turmoil reaching highs not seen since 2011, many Egyptians can hardly wait for 2013 to end. Youssef Hamza reports

Supporters of Egyptian military chief Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi rally in Tahrir Square in July, 2013. Khaled Desouki / AFP
Supporters of Egyptian military chief Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi rally in Tahrir Square in July, 2013. Khaled Desouki / AFP

CAIRO // With violence and turmoil reaching highs not seen since 2011, many Egyptians could hardly wait for 2013 to end.

The new year may bring a glimmer of hope for a nation that has been engulfed in crisis after crisis since the 2011 downfall of Hosni Mubarak.

In January, Egyptians are scheduled to cast a “yes” or “no” vote in a nationwide referendum on a new constitution replacing one adopted in 2012 when the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi was president. The new draft provides guarantees for freedoms not seen in any previous Egyptian constitution, enshrines gender equality, criminalises discrimination and trims the sweeping powers of the presidency.

The government installed by the military after it removed Mr Morsi in July would see a good turnout and a comfortable “yes” majority as a welcome nod of approval, not just for the new charter, but also for the removal from power of Mr Morsi and the road map announced by military chief Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

After the vote on the constitution, upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections could bring greater legitimacy to the post-Morsi regime, although a decision has yet to be made by Adly Mansour, the interim president, on which of the two votes should be held first.

Mr Mansour is widely thought to be leaning toward electing a president first. Gen El Sisi, whose popularity has soared in the six months since he removed Mr Morsi, is coming under growing pressure to run for the nation’s highest office, something that he has not ruled out.

Gen El Sisi in the presidency would almost certainly raise questions about the new regime’s democratic credentials and arouse suspicions that it would throw the country back to the authoritarian ways of Mr Mubarak and Anawar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser before him. Gen El Sisi shares the three men’s military background but were he to take the helm, he would be doing this at a time when Egyptians have little or no tolerance for repression, one-party rule or exclusion. A soldier with a reputation for discipline, Gen El Sissi has shown himself to be different from Egypt’s past military leaders, with compassion and a human touch he does not shy away from showing in public.

But perhaps the question that will worry most Egyptians in 2014 is whether a new constitution, a freely elected parliament and a popular president are enough to bring the country out of its deepening crisis and put an end to the street protests demanding Mr Morsi’s reinstatement.

It is not likely that the protests will completely cease if the road map is successfully completed, although participation in the pro-Morsi protests will most likely be even smaller.

Yet, the government has adopted a law that places stringent conditions on demonstrations. Last week, the Muslim Brotherhood, the group from which Mr Morsi hails, was declared a terrorist organisation. Egyptians now face up to five years in prison if convicted of membership.

The insurgency in the northern section of the Sinai Peninsula by Islamist militants, some with Al Qaeda links, is showing signs of weakening under the pressure of a major crackdown by the army and security forces there.

But, worryingly, there are growing signs that the militants have taken the fight to the mainland, with bombings targeting security and army facilities. The latest of these hit the security headquarters in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura on December 24, killing 15 and wounding scores. Beside the loss of life and material damage, attacks like that are likely to keep the vital tourism industry in the crippled state it has been since 2011 and scare investors away.