Egypt’s referendum on a new constitution seemed more like a polling station party than an election. Pro-military tunes blared from the speakers above many voting queues, voters gave roses to soldiers guarding the ballot boxes and young women ululated and danced their way to the booths holding pictures of the chief of the armed forces, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Officials said that 98.1 per cent of those who voted on 14 and 15 January endorsed the constitution, an amended version of the 2012 charter scrapped by Egypt’s top generals after they overthrew President Mohamed Morsi last July. Turnout was 38.6 per cent – higher than for the 2012 charter, which was approved by 64 per cent of voters on a 33 per cent turnout.
Although monitors said the referendum passed without systemic violations, there were no lively debates in the polling queues or the media. Six members of the moderate-Islamist Strong Egypt Party were jailed for putting up “vote No” posters.
“People voted Yes even if they didn’t understand the constitution because they want things to move on. Do you understand the conditions we are living in?” Mohamed Ali, an out-of-work tour guide, told me at a polling station in the Imbaba district of Cairo. He pointed at his local courthouse, bombed hours before voting began. Hunger and a desire for stability were driving people to vote Yes, he said.
The plebiscite amounts to a tacit endorsement for the military-installed government that has launched a crackdown on Morsi and his Islamist party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The new constitution shields the military from effective civilian oversight. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will have the power to approve whoever occupies the critical position of defence minister for the next two presidential terms, military trials of civilians will be permitted, and the armed forces’ budget will remain secret from government.
The interim president, Adly Mansour, is now expected to announce a revised political schedule, calling for presidential elections in March, to be followed by parliamentary elections. This would pave the way for Sisi to step forward as a candidate. Sisi has yet to confirm he will run for election, but has hinted several times that he will.
The few public statements made by leading generals suggest that the army will endorse his candidacy. He can also count on popular support: the media, several grass-roots campaigns and political parties have called for him to run. A photoshopped presidential campaign poster for the general went viral minutes after the preliminary results of the referendum were released.
Meanwhile, the only civilian to have declared his candidacy officially, the Nasserist politician Hamdeen Sabahi, was criticised by the media for warning against a military president. Hosni Mubarak’s last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, expressed an interest in running but added cautiously that he would bow out if Sisi joins the race.
If Sisi wins, he will oversee the implementation of the constitution, new draft laws and, crucially, parliamentary elections. It is likely the general will form his own party. “It’s easy to imagine a situation when Sisi’s new party sweeps the parliament, whose election will be as free and fair as the referendum,” said Hisham Hellyer of the Brookings Institution. “You won’t have ballot-stuffing because they won’t need to.”
On the ground, state repression is intensifying. The referendum result is the biggest blow to Morsi’s supporters, who boycotted the polls and are still under attack. Thousands have been jailed and hundreds more killed since July, but the Muslim Brotherhood, now labelled a terrorist organisation, and its Islamist coalition, the Anti-Coup Alliance, have vowed to step up their protests.“We lost all that we had, so there’s no turning back,” a 24-year-old Anti-Coup Alliance member told me. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of arrest. “We will continue until our last gasp. What else can we do?”
At the close of last year the government turned its focus on secular dissidents, including Morsi’s opponents. In the latest crackdown, he and 24 others, among them liberal activists, were put on trial for “insulting the judiciary” on 19 January.
Despite the nation’s strong support for the military, there were still rumblings of dissent among people in the polling queues. “If you are with what is going on you can speak freely,” said Mohamed Salah, 62, a retired business owner voting in the upmarket Cairo district of Zamalek. “Morsi has sown the seeds that split the nation and Sisi will bring those seeds to bloom.”