Egypt referendum also seen as vote on Morsi's removal
- 13 January 2014
- From the section Middle East
Drive around Cairo these days, and you get the message very quickly. The military installed authorities want a massive "Yes" vote in the forthcoming referendum.
Lampposts, billboards and buildings are plastered with posters bearing a large white tick. They are hard to avoid.
Spotting any posters from the "No" campaign is a lot harder. People have been arrested for putting them up.
And you will not hear much from opponents of the new constitution on TV and radio - either state-run or private - though the airwaves are flooded with endorsements of the document.
This distorted campaign has attracted some strong criticism from abroad. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington has called it "a flawed and undemocratic process".
Democratic or not, the referendum is seen by many as more than a ballot on a new constitution.
It is widely viewed as a verdict on the removal of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Pressure for a 'Yes' vote
This will be the first time Egyptians have gone to the polls since he was ousted by the army last July, in a popularly backed coup. The military wants a strong "Yes" vote to endorse that move.
"Certainly the interim government is going to perceive and present the vote as one that legitimises the ouster of Morsi," says Dr H A Hellyer, Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
"Whether or not it is perceived as such outside Egypt, or by the government's main opponents here, remains to be seen."
Islamists had a heavy hand in the drafting of the previous constitution, which was suspended after the coup. This time they were largely excluded.
The authorities maintain that the new draft is a big improvement that delivers more rights and freedoms, and is a crucial step on the road to stability.
But this version fortifies the power of the military. It retains a provision allowing civilians to be tried in military courts, and it gives the military control over the appointment of the defence minister for the next eight years.
It also stipulates that the military's budget will be beyond civilian oversight.
The veteran Egyptian diplomat Amr Moussa, chairman of the 50-member committee that drafted the constitution, admits it has disappointed some.
"There is no 100% in democracy," he told us. "We have done everything possible to preserve democracy and to promote democracy, but there are articles and situations that need to be dealt with, bearing in mind the security of the state and the security of the people. "
But critics say the constitution favours the army at the expense of the people, and fails to deliver on the revolution of 2011 which overthrew the long-time military ruler Hosni Mubarak.
"This constitution will bring us back to the Mubarak regime and his repressive rule in Egypt," said Ramy Sayed from the 6 April Movement, which was at the forefront of the recent revolution.
We met the student activist alongside a wall daubed with revolutionary slogans in Mohamed Mahmoud Street, off Tahrir Square. This was where almost 50 people were killed in clashes in 2011.
"This constitution is a betrayal of our martyrs who were killed here," he said, "and who lost their blood and souls for human rights. We can never accept it."
The acclaimed Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif - who was also on the streets during the revolution - says the referendum is all but irrelevant because Egypt has returned to its old ways.
"The constitution is almost a red herring," she told us. "Why go into a whole process of deciding on a constitution, when the institution of the law itself is being eroded? The only thing this constitution does is that it legitimises the very powerful and unquestioned position of the army in Egypt today."
Liberals are not the only ones unhappy with the document.
The Muslim Brotherhood, or what's left of it, has called for a boycott of "the blood-stained constitution".
The organisation is now classed as a terrorist group, and thousands of its senior leaders and supporters are behind bars.
Simply attending one of its protests can result in a three-year jail term.
Secular activists are also being jailed for protesting, as part of an escalating clampdown on dissent.
The constitution is expected to attract a resounding "Yes" vote, but the turnout is key. Both the Brotherhood, and the military which removed it, will be closely watching that.
The last constitution, adopted under the Islamists, was approved by 63.8%, but only 32.9% actually voted. The army needs a much larger turnout this time.
This could be affected by security concerns. There are fears of attacks aimed at disrupting the vote, and the authorities are promising a heavy security presence at polling stations.
Rather than healing the divisions in Egypt, some fear the referendum will harden them.
It is due to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming months. It now seems certain that General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the army chief who led the coup, will run for president - putting a military strongman back in charge in Egypt.
While the authorities are insisting that the country is on a roadmap to democracy, some are predicting another mass revolt ahead.
"This situation can only be held together by oppression and more oppression," said Ahdaf Soueif, "and I think there is a limit to how far that can go without people rising up again.
"I think we will definitely see another revolution."