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. She is on Twitter as @SEMcBain.

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Unlikely sisters in the Gaza Strip

A former Jewish settler in Gaza recalls her childhood friendship with a young Palestinian.

It was well after midnight, one summer night in 1995, when Inbar Rozy, a 13-year-old living in the former Israeli settlement of Alei Sinai in the northern Gaza Strip, heard her parents answer the phone. Sitting up in bed, surrounded by potted plants, candles and fairy dolls lit by shafts of light from a nearby security outpost, Inbar listened closely.

“I could hear everyone talking around me, making calls,” Inbar said when we met recently in Nitzan, southern Israel. When she got up to find out what was happening, her parents told her to make up a second mattress. As dawn broke, they led into the room a young woman carrying a small bag and wearing a black shirt and jeans. “She had shoulder-length dark hair dyed with red henna and beautiful eyes – big, black with thick eyelashes,” Inbar told me, smiling. “[She was] quiet. She looked scared.”

The woman was Rina (her surname cannot be given for security reasons), a talented artist in her early twenties studying at a local art college, where she had fallen in love with a Christian boy. For Rina, coming from a traditional family, marrying a non-Muslim would be strictly forbidden.

When her parents found out, they were furious and forbade her from seeing her boyfriend. But her male cousins felt this wasn’t enough. Earlier on the day the girls first met, Rina’s cousins had attempted to kill her in retribution for her perceived “honour crime”. Seeing that another attempt on her life was likely, Rina’s father called a relative, who in turn called Inbar’s father, Yossef, a friend of many years. There was no doubt she had to leave. Ironically, a Jewish settlement protected by the Israel Defence Forces was the safest place in Gaza for her to be.

In 1967, Israel seized the Gaza Strip from Egypt during the Six Day War. In time, it settled 21 communities on a third of the land, with a population of 8,000 by 2005. Soldiers guarded the settlements from 1.5 million displaced Palestinians, tens of thousands of whom were displaced in 1967 and moved to live in nearby refugee camps. In Gaza, before Israel’s ultimate withdrawal from the Strip in 2005, relationships between Israeli settlers and Palestinians were fraught. True, many Palestinians worked in Israeli settlements, earning wages higher than elsewhere in the Strip, but the two communities lived largely separate lives.

In the mid-1990s, even after the Oslo Accords, violence was simmering. Israeli military incursions increased with the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. Thousands of home-made Qassam rockets were launched by Palestinian militants at settlers and those living in southern Israel. Security measures hardened. The veteran Israeli journalist Amira Hass, who spent several years living in Gaza, describes neighbourhoods that were “turned into jails behind barbed-wire fences, closed gates, IDF surveillance, tanks and entry-permit red tape”.

And yet, in spite of the forced segregation, Inbar’s family enjoyed close links with their Palestinian neighbours. Inbar’s father worked as an ambulance driver, and on several occasions he helped transport those who lived nearby for emergency medical treatment in Israel. “Every Tuesday, my father’s Jewish and Arab friends would come to our house and we’d eat lunch together,” Inbar remembered.

Given the gravity of Rina’s situation, she couldn’t leave the house. Secrecy was paramount. The girls spent weeks together indoors, Inbar said, chatting, watching TV and drawing. “I’m not sure that as a child I actually understood it for real,” she said. “She taught me how to paint and sketch a face from sight.”

Almost as soon as Rina arrived, Inbar’s family began receiving anonymous phone calls asking about her. “My dad told me, ‘Don’t mention anything about Rina. Say you don’t know what they’re talking about – because otherwise they’ll come and kill us,’” Inbar said.

While the girls got to know each other, Inbar’s mother, Brigitte, found a women’s shelter in East Jerusalem for Rina. Whereas today Gaza is closed off by a military border under heavy surveillance, at that time it was porous. Brigitte drove Rina in to the capital, where she was given a new name and identity that would enable her to begin a new life, on condition that she contact no one in Gaza.

Today Inbar, who is 33, works at the Gush Katif centre in Nitzan – a museum dedicated to the memory of the Israeli settlements in Gaza. Despite her parents’ objections, the family was evacuated in 2005. Unlike most settlers in Gaza, some residents of Alei Sinai were determined to stay on, even if that meant forfeiting their Israeli citizenship. “I have no problem with living as a minority in a Palestinian state,” one of Alei Sinai’s inhabitants, Avi Farhan, told the Israeli daily Haaretz at the time.

Inbar now lives in Ashkelon, a city of 140,000 in southern Israel, and finds the big city alienating, especially when she recalls the warm relationships that once existed in Gaza. “I’ve never felt less secure,” she told me.

Years later, she learned that Rina had developed cancer and died. “The day before Rina left . . . she drew a portrait of me,” she said, describing how her friend had outlined, in charcoal strokes, the features of the teenager. Her parents packed the portrait with all their belongings in a shipping container the day they left Gaza. Soon after, the container was destroyed in a fire.

“I think if people had given it a chance . . . they would have had these kinds of friendships,” Inbar said, looking back. “We’d get along fairly well if we didn’t look at others as the monsters over the wall.” 

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism