Egyptians vote in constitutional referendum

Today, on January 14, Egyptians vote for the first time since the military ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in a two-day referendum on a new constitution, which could pave the way for fresh elections and may set the stage for a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The new charter aims to replace the constitution passed under Morsi months before he was overthrown. It is yet uncertain how many Egyptians will vote due to concern over violence and militant attacks that may take place, but the constitution is expected to pass. It is backed by many Egyptians who view the constitution as something that can stabilize the country after years of turmoil.

The new constitution was drafted by a 50-member committee that included only two representatives of Islamist parties. Mohammed Soudan, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's political wing, said most people were boycotting the vote, adding: "This is a message that we are not recognizing this kind of new power."

Anti-referendum protests
Eager to get voters to the polls, the government announced a huge deployment of police and soldiers to secure the ballot. The authorities, backed by the military, also relaxed rules on where people can vote, letting them cast their ballots outside their constituencies. The military hopes the constitutional vote will shun away disputes over its authority after carrying out a crackdown on Morsi’s Islamist supporters, who denounced the “sham referendum.” The government has pledged "zero tolerance" against any bid to disrupt balloting. An Islamist coalition led by the Muslim Brotherhood called for a boycott and “civilized peaceful protests” during the two-day referendum. The government has escalated its crackdown on the Brotherhood in recent weeks, declaring it a terrorist organization on December 25.

Shortly before voting began, an explosion took place near a court building in Cairo's Imbaba district, although no casualties were reported. One person was killed during an anti-referendum protest in Bani Suef, south of Cairo, the governor there said.

A boost to the military
The new constitution will boost the military powers, allowing the army to appoint a defense minister for the next eight years, and try civilians for attacks on the armed forces. It also stipulates that the military's budget will be beyond civilian oversight. Critics say the new constitution will strengthen state institutions that defied Morsi: the military, the police and the judiciary at the expense of the people.

The authorities maintain that the new draft delivers more rights and freedoms, and is a crucial step on the road to stability. According to its supporters, the new constitution expands women’s rights and freedom of speech, going a long way from the Islamist-inspired wording of Morsi’s constitution, which was suspended following his overthrow. They say the new constitution will bring stability to Egypt after three years of turmoil.

International criticism
Some international non-governmental organizations have been harshly critical of the authorities ahead of this week's referendum. The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based group that works to uphold the rule of law, described the draft constitution as highly flawed. "The referendum campaign has taken place within a context of fear, intimidation and repression, calling into question the fairness of the entire process," it said in a statement. Human Rights Watch expressed concern at reports that seven activists from the Strong Egypt party face criminal charges for hanging posters calling for a 'no' vote in the referendum.

International observers from the European Union and the UK-based anti-corruption organization, Transparency International, are in Cairo to monitor the referendum and ensure voting transparency. James Moran, EU ambassador to Egypt, said that the EU delegation was working with civil society organizations to assess the process. Referring to the monitoring process he said: “It is a process... we are not making a judgement. What we are doing here is looking forward... our objective is to see this country succeed in regaining stability, to succeed in regaining democracy and above all to succeed in regaining a level of prosperity.” The Carter Centre for International Election Observation has announced that it will not send field observers to monitor the referendum on Egypt's Constitutional amendments. The director of the centre's Cairo programme, Alessandro Parziale, said his team would only monitor legal aspects of the vote via ten legal observers.

Sisi’s presidential bid
A Yes vote could also pave the way for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections. It now seems certain that army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who backed Morsi's removal following mass protests, will run for president. His Islamist opponents see Sisi as the mastermind of a coup that kindled the worst internal strife in Egypt’s modern history and brought back what critics call a police state. However, many Egyptians are weary of the political upheaval that has gripped Egypt and shattered its economy since the overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011. They view Sisi as a decisive figure who can reinstate stability. If he runs for president, Sisi is widely expected to win. A Sisi presidency would mark a return to the days when the post was controlled by men from the military - a pattern interrupted by Morsi's one year in office.

Sources: Reuters, Al Jazeera, BBC, Al Arabiya, Middle East Monitor, Al-Awsat

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