x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Egyptians prepare for historic constitutional referendum

This week Egyptians will vote in a constitutional referendum that will define the country's future path.

CAIRO // Egyptians go to the polls on Tuesday and Wednesday to vote in a referendum on a charter drafted by a mainly liberal panel of 50 members.

The vote’s significance cannot be overestimated.

A comfortable “yes” vote with a respectable turnout between 65 and 70 per cent would carve in stone the legitimacy of the administration installed by the military following its removal of Mohammed Morsi after millions protested to demand the Islamist president resign.

A poor turnout and a slender “yes” majority would be enough to ratify the draft but would undermine the authority of the interim government.

Even more importantly, a high turnout and a comfortable “yes” majority would serve as a nod to Egypt’s most powerful man, the military chief Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi, to run for president in elections scheduled for this autumn. Crucially, an emphatic yes to the draft constitution would nullify claims by Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood that they are Egypt’s leaders and, in effect, establish a new legitimacy for the post-Morsi regime.

With the stakes so high, authorities are not taking any chances in the face of the persistent street protests by supporters of Mr Morsi, who say they will boycott the vote and step up their street demonstrations against what they call “the constitution of blood”.

The army and police are planning an elaborate security operation to protect polling stations and the country’s 52 million voters.

There have been stern warnings that anyone who attempts to disrupt the process would be dealt with harshly. According to the military spokesman Colonel Mohammed Ahmed Ali, 160,000 soldiers will be deployed on the streets to protect voters – about a third of the armed forces.

For its part, the government has announced that voters can cast their ballots anywhere in Egypt rather than in the polling station where he or she are registered. The move is clearly designed to bolster the turnout but raises the spectre of fraud, with voters casting ballots more than once. To counter that possibility, the government said offenders would be imprisoned if caught.

The campaign to approve the constitution, meanwhile, has been in full swing. Giant billboards exhort Egyptians to vote “yes”. Television advertisements equate a “yes” vote to stability and a strike against “terrorism”, a reference to the Brotherhood and its more radical allies.

Egyptians are fed up with three years of economic hardship and violence that has marred the country since Hosni Mubarak was toppled in 2011. They see the vote as a giant step towards the return of stability.

It is also taking place as the crackdown against the Brotherhood continues, with thousands rounded up, including the group’s top leaders and midlevel operatives. Mr Morsi is on trial for three different cases that carry the death sentence.

His trial was postponed last week after weather cancelled his transport to Cairo from a prison near Alexandria. Some observers say that authorities did not want a court appearance by Mr Morsi to distract from the referendum.

Mr Morsi was quoted by Egyptian newspapers before his hearing as saying he was saving a few “surprises” for the court.

Security officials say the Brotherhood is clandestinely campaigning for a “no” vote to dent a possible “yes” majority while publicly sticking to its boycott.

Planned street protests by Mr Morsi’s supporters against the vote are also likely to end in violence as they often have in recent weeks. That, the officials fear, could keep voters at home out of fear for their safety.

The potential for violence is immense.

Islamist protesters have been pelting security forces with rocks and firebombs. The police respond with tear gas, water cannons and bird shots. But in recent weeks, a growing number of pro-Morsi protesters have been spotted carrying firearms.

Video footage and photos show Brotherhood supporters torching civilian and police cars and attacking students who refuse to observe strikes declared by the Islamists.

The Brotherhood insists that its protests are peaceful.