Why Egyptians Are Voting Away Their Freedoms

The two-day referendum being held in Egypt is effectively a rubber-stamp vote that will guarantee the military-backed regime greater powers

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Eman Helal / AP

An Egyptian woman wearing a T-shirt with a photo of Defense Minister General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi stands outside a polling station on the first day of voting in Egypt's constitutional referendum in Cairo on Jan. 14, 2014

Dozens of men lined the sidewalk outside a school in Cairo’s upper-class Mohandessin neighborhood on Tuesday morning, the first day of voting on Egypt’s new constitution. Soldiers in tan fatigues armed with AK-47s motioned for the men to enter, four or five at a time. Inside the gates, one group of mostly elderly men argued with the army officer in charge. “We can’t find our names on the list!” shouted one man. The officer dialed his cell phone, assuring the man he would find his polling station.

The proposed constitution, drafted under a military-backed government in the months since the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi in July, further insulates the police and armed forces from civilian control and could enshrine the military’s power within the Egyptian state for decades. Nearly three years after a popular uprising forced autocrat Hosni Mubarak from power, Egypt’s security state is triumphant once again. Since Morsi’s removal, more than a thousand people have been killed in a government crackdown on supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. Hundreds of others have been jailed, including journalists and leading activists who opposed Mubarak and Morsi. With most of the media backing the current regime, and much of the public either voicing support for the military or simply resigned to the reality of the current political arrangement, the forces of the 2011 revolution are struggling to be heard.

At three separate polling stations on Tuesday, every voter interviewed backed the constitution. “I believe that this constitution is a very good constitution, and this is just to give a message that we don’t want the Muslim Brotherhood. We want a new regime of freedom and democracy,” says Inas Mazen, a 60-year-old doctor, at a women’s polling station in Mohandessin. Egypt’s Elections Committee on Monday reported that 15% of voters had turned out so far, according to the leading news site Ahram Online. Nine people were killed in violence at polling stations as security forces clashed with protesters, and an explosion hit a courthouse in Cairo’s Imbaba district, causing no reported injuries.

(MORE: Egypt’s Military-Backed Rulers Brand Muslim Brotherhood ‘Terrorist’ and Extend Crackdown)

In spite of criticism from rights groups and political dissidents about both the content of the constitution and the integrity of the voting process, the document is expected to be approved by a majority of voters. Recent history suggests voters will choose a concrete constitutional option and the prospect of political stability over the chaos of a no vote. Majorities also voted yes in constitutional referendums in Egypt in 2011 and 2012.

This week’s referendum is also taking place amid government harassment of those opposed to the document. One of the only groups actively urging a no vote, the Strong Egypt Party, suspended its campaign on Sunday after 11 activists were arrested in three separate incidents hanging posters and distributing campaign materials. “It’s a referendum with one choice only, and it’s yes. No is not allowed,” says Strong Egypt Party representative Fekry Nabil. “This process is not free and not fair, and we cannot join it.”

Khaled Mansour, director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a leading watchdog group, says the arrests “cast a huge shadow over the integrity of this process.” He adds, “Hanging a poster, expressing a political opinion is not something that’s controversial. It’s bordering on the ridiculous here.”

Driven underground after the government branded it a terrorist organization, the Muslim Brotherhood, once a formidable electoral force, called for a boycott of the vote. The proposed constitution was drafted by a 50-member committee appointed in the wake of the military’s removal of Brotherhood-affiliated Morsi in July following huge protests. Morsi’s backers and other opponents of the coup regard the military-backed political process as illegitimate. But the Brotherhood’s current stance is also a role reversal. In late 2012, Morsi’s government alienated other political forces by drafting and then passing a constitution without broad public support.

Concurrent with the crackdown, a massive media campaign is urging Egyptians to approve the new constitution, framing the vote as a revolutionary duty. Banners hang on every major bridge and overpasses in Cairo with slogans like “Yes to the constitution, no to terrorism.” Other ads directly invoke the legacy of the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and triggered Morsi’s removal in 2013. “Egypt changed on Jan. 25 and was liberated on June 30,” says one radio ad, referring to the dates of the original uprising and then mass demonstrations against Morsi last year. “Go down and complete the journey. Participate in the referendum on the constitution.” On Saturday, armed-forces chief Abdul Fattah al-Sisi himself urged the public to vote yes “in force,” and hinted at a possible presidential run himself. Claiming a mandate from the protests against Morsi, the general who led the July coup enjoys a considerable cult of personality, and if he chooses to stand for election, he would be considered the electoral favorite.

Supporting the constitution is a mismatched coalition that includes the conservative Salafist Nour Party, Nasserists and secular probusiness groups like the Free Egyptians Party, which is backed by telecommunications mogul Naguib Sawiris. The constitution’s proponents often dismiss concerns that it places too much power in the hands of the military. “We all feel that Egypt is going through a tough phase in facing terrorism these days,” says Free Egyptians founding member Naguib Abadir. “We need a strong military that will not be compromised in the coming eight years in any way, in order to perform the duties that will be key to the survival of Egypt.”

(MORE: Egypt’s Military-Backed Rulers Brand Muslim Brotherhood ‘Terrorist’ and Extend Crackdown)

While the yes campaign is ubiquitous, the once-ascendant voices of the 2011 uprising have been relegated to the margins. Wael Abbas, a prominent dissident blogger and activist opposes the constitution vigorously, but even his own father, an attorney, planned to vote for it. “The constitution gives godly powers to the military in Egypt. It makes them untouchable,” says Abbas. “I tried to explain as much as possible, but he [Abbas’ father] doesn’t look on the Internet. He only sees one side that is aired on TV.” Propaganda and misinformation often circulate in much of Egypt’s media. “When you turn on a television or you open a newspaper, you enter a fact-free zone,” says Nathan Brown, a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

The proposed constitution’s critics point out that the document grants more autonomy to already powerful state institutions, including the military, judiciary and police. The military’s leadership is granted the power to approve choices for Defense Minister for two presidential terms. Continuing a long-standing practice, military courts are given the power to try civilians. A police council is given the right to approve or reject all laws dealing with police. “It will effectively give the Interior Ministry a veto over reforming itself, and it’s not going to do it,” Brown says.

“It’s vendetta time and anyone who crossed them [the Interior Ministry] is in their crosshairs,” he says. “To me, one of the big questions is, Is any kind of political system that comes out of this going to be able to bring that structure under control? — and I’m not sure that there is.”

Among voters interviewed at the polls on Monday, no one was worried about the possibility that the new constitution would entrench the military’s institutional power. Emerging from the voting room in the Mohandessin school, Ashraf Nasif, a 39-year-old employee of a multinational corporation, says, “Yes, the army did help ousting Morsi but, it couldn’t happen without millions of people in the street. The army alone couldn’t do anything without the people.”