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.

Photo: Getty
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Emmanuel Macron can win - but so can Marine Le Pen

Macron is the frontrunner, but he remains vulnerable to an upset. 

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron is campaigning in the sixth largest French city aka London today. He’s feeling buoyed by polls showing not only that he is consolidating his second place but that the voters who have put him there are increasingly comfortable in their choice

But he’ll also be getting nervous that those same polls show Marine Le Pen increasing her second round performance a little against both him and François Fillon, the troubled centre-right candidate. Her slight increase, coming off the back of riots after the brutal arrest of a 22-year-old black man and Macron’s critical comments about the French empire in Algeria is a reminder of two things: firstly the potential for domestic crisis or terror attack to hand Le Pen a late and decisive advantage.  Secondly that Macron has not been doing politics all that long and the chance of a late implosion on his part cannot be ruled out either.

That many of his voters are former supporters of either Fillon or the Socialist Party “on holiday” means that he is vulnerable should Fillon discover a sense of shame – highly unlikely but not impossible either – and quit in favour of a centre-right candidate not mired in scandal. And if Benoît Hamon does a deal with Jean-Luc Mélenchon – slightly more likely that Fillon developing a sense of shame but still unlikely – then he could be shut out of the second round entirely.

What does that all mean? As far as Britain is concerned, a Macron or Fillon presidency means the same thing: a French government that will not be keen on an easy exit for the UK and one that is considerably less anti-Russian than François Hollande’s. But the real disruption may be in the PR battle as far as who gets the blame if Theresa May muffs Brexit is concerned.

As I’ve written before, the PM doesn’t like to feed the beast as far as the British news cycle and the press is concerned. She hasn’t cultivated many friends in the press and much of the traditional rightwing echo chamber, from the press to big business, is hostile to her. While Labour is led from its leftmost flank, that doesn’t much matter. But if in the blame game for Brexit, May is facing against an attractive, international centrist who shares much of the prejudices of May’s British critics, the hope that the blame for a bad deal will be placed solely on the shoulders of the EU27 may turn out to be a thin hope indeed.

Implausible? Don’t forget that people already think that Germany is led by a tough operator who gets what she wants, and think less of David Cameron for being regularly outmanoeuvered by her – at least, that’s how they see it. Don’t rule out difficulties for May if she is seen to be victim to the same thing from a resurgent France.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.