Three reasons Egyptians should vote “no” in today's referendum

Egyptians are expected to vote “yes” in a referendum on their new constitution. This will prove a big mistake.

For the third time in as many years, Egyptians are voting in a referendum on their country’s future. This time voters are being asked to give their assent to a new constitution drawn up following the removal of the country’s first democratically elected president, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi. In July 2013 the army deposed Morsi and imprisoned many of his supporters following mass protests by Egyptians who feared their Islamist president was exhibiting increasingly authoritarian tendencies. The new constitution bolsters the role of the military – it permits civilians to be tried in civilian courts, and allows the military to set its budgets independently of parliament, for instance- and is seen by many as a vote of approval for the armed forces chief, General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, to run for president.

The Referendum is expected to yield a “yes” vote: many ordinary Egyptians crave stability as years of unrest takes its toll on the economy, the Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting the vote and some people in favour of a “no” vote have been arrested. The only real uncertainty is how large the turnout will be.

A yes vote, in my view, will prove a gross mistake, and here’s why:

1. The Egyptian military instigated a brutal crackdown on its enemies – hundreds Muslim Brotherhood supporters are known to have been killed in August 2013 (the Muslim Brotherhood places the death rate 2,200). Now the military is striking out against the liberal activists that once supported 2013's military intervention. Three prominent pro-democracy activists were jailed at the end of last year, and restrictions have been placed on the right to protest. A “yes” in today’s referendum is a “yes” to a military elite that can and will use military courts against civilians, including pro-democracy campaigners, and that has shown itself unwilling and incapable of practicing the democratic norms of compromise and negotiation. In short, a "yes" today looks set to be a "no" for democracy – and pro-democracy campaigners should brace themselves for the consequences. 

2. General Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who earlier this week gave his strongest hint to date that he will run for president, is already demonstrating an alarming tendency to cultivate a personality cult. His image is available on anything from chocolates to lingerie, and some Egyptians staged protests because he wasn’t named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year”. Perhaps the soft-spoken general can’t help it if ordinary Egyptians want to make a hero of him: but it also seems its something he’s actively encouraging. Last year he told the public he'd been experiencing grand, premonitory dreams. In one he spoke to Egypt’s late leader Anwar Sadat about how he, too, was destined to lead Egypt. In another he raised a sword emblazoned with the words “there is no God but God”. 

3. Three years on from Egypt’s revolution, the country is still divided over its future and identity. What role should religion play in the state? What are the limits – if any – on freedom of speech and association? Can Islamists, secularists and Coptic Christians accommodate each other politically? In the long term, the only way to secure national unity and reconciliation is through peaceful negotiation and compromise – but the new constitution looks most likely to usher in a new period of rule by a military unafraid to impose its narrow, inflexible vision for Egypt on a diverse and divided population. 

Egyptians queue at a polling station in Cairo to vote on a new constitution. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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We can't rush to war in Syria without a plan for peace

A recent visit to Iraq has left me doubtful that the Prime Minister's plan can suceed, says Liam Byrne.

As shock of the Paris lifts and the fightback starts, all eyes are now the prime minister and, at last, the 'full spectrum response' we were promised months ago.

But what's needed now is not just another plan to bomb the ground -  but a plan to hold the ground we win. Four days in Northern Iraq has made me deeply sceptical about air strikes alone. It's convinced me that after the mistakes of Iraq and Libya, we cannot have yet another effort to win the battle and lose the war. Without politics and aid, projectiles and air-raids will fail. It's as simple as that.

After the horror of Paris it's easy to ignore that in Iraq and Syria, Isil is now in retreat. That's why these animals are lashing out with such barbarism abroad. In the ground war, Kurdistan's fighters in particular, known as the Peshmerga - or 'those who face death' -  have now shattered the myth of Isil's invincibility.

A fortnight ago, I travelled through Northern Iraq with a group of MP's arriving on the day the key town of Sinjar was stormed, cutting the umbilical cord - route 47 - between Isil's spiritual home of Mosul in Iraq and Isil HQ in Raqqa. And on the frontline in Kirkuk in north west Iraq, two miles from Isil territory, Commander Wasta Rasul briefed us on a similar success.

On the great earthwork defences here on the middle of a vast brown plain with the flares of the oil pumps on the horizon, you can see through binoculars, Isil's black flags. It was here, with RAF support, that Isil was driven out of the key oil-fields last summer. That's why air cover can work. And despite their best efforts - including a suicide attack with three Humvees loaded with explosives - Isil's fight back failed. Along a 1,000 km battle-front, Isil is now in retreat and their capitals aren't far from chaos.

But, here's the first challenge. The military advance is now at risk from economic collapse. Every political leader I met in Iraq was blunt: Kurdistan's economy is in crisis. Some 70% of workers are on the public payroll. Electricity is free. Fuel is subsidised. In other words, the Government's bills are big.

But taxes are non-existent. The banks don't work. Inward investment is ensnared in red tape. And when the oil price collapsed last year, the Government's budget fell through the floor.

Now, in a bust up with Baghdad, cash has been slashed to Kurdistan, just as a wave of 250,000 refugees arrived, along with over a million internally displaced people fleeing Da'esh and Shiite militias in the south. Nearly 6,000 development projects are stalled and people - including the Peshmerga - haven't been paid for months.

We have brave allies in the fight against Isil - but bravery doesn't buy them bullets. As we gear up the battle against Isil, it's now vital we help boost the Kurd's economic strength - or their sinews of war will weaken. There's an old Kurdish saying; 'the mountains are our only friends'. It's an expression born of years of let-down. In the fight against Da'esh, it's a mistake we can't afford to repeat today.

Second, everyone I met in Iraq was clear that unless the Sunni community can find alternative leadership to Isil then any ground we win may soon be lost, if not to Isil, then “Isil II”. Let's remember Isil didn't just 'emerge'. It grew from a tradition of political Islam decades old and mutated like a Frankenstein monster first by Al-Qaeda, then Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Al-Nusra front and now Isil.

Crucial to this warped perversion has been the total breakdown of trust between Iraq's Sunni residents - and the Shi'ite dominated government in Baghdad. In Mosul, for instance, when the Iraqi security forces left, they were stoned in their Humvees by local residents who felt completely humiliated. In refugee camps, it's not hard to find people who didn't flee Da'esh but Shi'ite militia groups.

Now, tracking surveys in Mosul report tension is rising. The Isil regime is sickening people with an obsessive micro-management of the way everyone lives and prays - down to how men must style their beards - with brutal punishment for anyone stepping out of line. Mobile phone coverage is cut. Food prices are rising. Electricity supplies are sporadic. Residents are getting restless. But, the challenge of gaining - and then holding a city of 3 million people will quite simply prove impossible without alternative Sunni leaders: but who are they? Where will they come from? The truth is peace will take politics.

There's one final piece of the puzzle, the PM needs to reflect on. And that's how we project a new unity of purpose. We desperately need to make the case that our cause is for both western and Islamic freedom.

I serve the biggest Muslim community in Britain - and amongst my constituents, especially young people, there's a profound sense that the conduct of this debate is making them feel like the enemy within. Yet my constituents hate Isil's violence as much as anyone else.

In Iraqi Kurdistan, I heard first-hand the extraordinary unity of purpose to destroy Isil with total clarity: “Your fight,” said the Kurdistan prime minister to us “is our fight.” In the refugee camps at Ashti and Bakhara, you can see why. Over a million people have been displaced in Kurdistan - grandparents, parents, children - fleeing to save their children - and losing everything on the way. “Da'esh,” said one very senior Kurdistan official 'aren't fighting to live. They're fighting to die. They're not battling a country or a system. They're battling humanity".

Here in Europe, we are hardwired to the fortunes of Central Asia, by trade, energy needs, investment and immigration. It's a vast region home to the seminal struggles of Israel/Palestine, Sunni/Shia and India/ Pakistan. Yet it's a land with which we share traditions of Abrahamic prophets, Greek philosophy and Arabic science. We need both victory and security. So surely we can't try once again to win a war without a plan for winning a peace. It's time for the prime minister to produce one.

Liam Byrne is Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill, cofounder of the UK-China Young Leaders Roundtable and author of Turning to Face the East: How Britain Prospers in the Asian Century.