Egyptians Couldn't Say 'No' to a New Constitution

According to Egypt's state news agency, the country overwhelmingly voted to approve a new constitution this week

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According to Egypt's state news agency, the country overwhelmingly voted to approve a new constitution this week, based on unofficial vote tallies, though it's hard to imagine how there could have been any other outcome. The two-day vote was officially a referendum on an amended version of the country's constitution, but pretty much everyone in Egypt agrees that it's really a proxy referendum on Army General Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi's inevitable run for president. And, from a wider lens, it's a referendum on the Egyptian military's latest attempt to restore a security-based rule over the country, just a handful of years after Egyptians rejected the security state of Hosni Mubarak.

The country's military-backed interim government, along with much of the Egyptian press, made it almost certain that the results of this week's vote would be "Yes." The Muslim Brotherhood party, whose President Mohammed Morsi was deposed from power last year, boycotted the vote. About a thousand pro-Morsi protesters have died in military crackdowns since Morsi was removed from office, and even more have been imprisoned.

Those opposing the new proposed constitution have faced harassment and arrests in the lead-up to this week's elections, even for acts as simple as hanging a poster promoting a "No" vote. At least nine police were killed in clashes between police and pro-Morsi protesters on Tuesday. (The second day of voting on Wednesday was much calmer). According to Reuters, 444 were arrested during the voting process. Buzzfeed, reported that polling monitors observed bribery attempts, intimidation, and chants inside polling stations urging "yes" votes.

For weeks, Egyptians have seen a barrage of reasons to vote "Yes," often in the name of national security. Those messages come from the interim government, from the military, and from the Egyptian media at large. Time explains:

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. 

In one Egyptian paper, for example, a columnist published a piece on the referendum. It is simply the word "Yes," repeated again and again.

As Reuters notes, the military crackdown has also targeted some more secular supporters of the original 2011 uprising that deposed Mubarak and his decades-long authoritarian ruler of the country. Mubarak, by the way, also urged Egyptians to vote "Yes." 

With approval assured, Egypt will now replace a problematic, Morsi-backed 2012 constitution riddled with opportunities for increased Islamist influence, with a problematic, more secular constitution that removes many of the 2012 document's more progressive protections for dissent and democratic participation. Al Jazeera America has a round-up of the the changes between 2012 and the proposed 2014 constitution here.

Crucially, the proposal would increase the power and autonomy of the anti-Muslim Brotherhood judiciary wing of the Egyptian government. The judiciary would become one of two Egyptian institutions — the military is the other — allowed to submit its budget to the country's parliament as a single number. They'll be able to choose the country's Attorney General and Supreme Constitutional Court.

General Sisi claimed that a favorable "yes" vote would be a mandate for his possible run for the presidency. And that sentiment is already being promoted to Egyptians. Egypt's interim government released a somewhat odd press release on Wednesday praising international coverage of the votes, as well: "World media have highlighted the high turnout by Egyptians in the referendum on the constitution," the statement reads, adding, "They said this high turnout creates new legitimacy and is considered a referendum on the General Sisi as a potential president."

Meanwhile, Egyptian police have detained some journalists trying to cover the referendum in recent weeks. Three Al Jazeera reporters were detained in late December. And on Wednesday, police briefly detained an AP freelance cameraman after seeing his footage on Al Jazeera, mistaking him for an employee of the news organization. The interim government has said that it believes Al Jazeera is collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is now officially a terrorist organization in the country. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.