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.