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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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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