CAIRO — Amid massive troop deployment Tuesday, Egyptians lined up outside polling stations around the country to cast their votes at the start of a two-day referendum on a proposed constitution. For many, a “yes” vote translates into direct support for Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, the military leader who piloted the ousting of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and has recently hinted at a presidential bid.
After nearly three years of political upheaval following the 2011 revolution and waves of targeted attacks on security personnel, most protest-weary Egyptians fully back Sisi and the state’s “war on terrorism.”
“I want to set back my country after it has been kidnapped by the Muslim Brotherhood,” Ismael Al-Shazly, an architect from Cairo, told The Huffington Post after he voted in favor of the constitution. “My vote will bring stability to the country.”
The military-backed government says the proposed constitution is a crucial step for Egypt to move forward and out of turmoil. It has blamed the rising sectarian tension and terrorist attacks following Morsi’s ouster on the Muslim Brotherhood, though the group denounces any affiliation to the Sinai-based militant groups who have claimed responsibility for many of the attacks. The Brotherhood is now officially labeled a terrorist group, and thousands of Egyptians supporting Morsi have been killed or jailed. Secular revolutionary activists and journalists have also been targeted, facing charges of illegally protesting, belonging to a terrorist organization, or endangering national security.
The proposed constitution would tone down Islamist language from Morsi’s government and ban any political parties based on religion. It would also grant wider powers to the army and the police.
In a speech Monday by interim President Adly Mansour commemorating the birth of the prophet, he took the opportunity to call on the Egyptian people to go out and vote and “continue the revolutionary path [Egypt has] chosen, with a constitution that would act as a springboard for a modern democratic and civil state.”
Walls of polling stations are splashed with pro-constitution posters and citizens are handing out fliers telling people to vote yes. “The constitution achieves equality in rights and duties without discrimination,” one flier read. “Yes to the constitution!” another read, showing a clenched fist popping out of a red map of Egypt. On Monday, Egyptian newspaper Akhbar El-Youm’s front page showed a drawing of thousands of Egyptians forming a huge “yes” in Arabic across a map of the country. Cairo — from its highways to its buildings to its media — screams “Yes!”
On Monday, the Egyptian army warned that it would intervene if anyone attempted to thwart a referendum on the constitution or tried to influence voter opinion. But when people passed out pro-constitution materials to voters at polling centers, army personnel and voting officials did not stop them.
At one polling center in Giza, plain-clothed officers and soldiers holding batons and semiautomatic rifles patrolled the street, checking bags and IDs. An old car drove past and its engine popped. The crowd jumped. An old man looked around and nervously laughed.
Soldiers sitting in armored personnel carriers took photos with smiling families after they cast their votes. Children held fluttering Egyptian flags as women proudly lifted their red-inked fingers and shouted, “Sisi!”
Strong Egypt Party and the April 6 Movement — the well-known group that played a crucial role in the 2011 revolution — announced they would boycott the referendum. Many Egyptians campaigning against the constitution have been beaten up and thrown in prison, while others have been too afraid to cast their “no” vote. At least five have been killed in clashes between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and security forces, according to Egypt’s Ahram Online.
Outspoken Egyptian Omar Kamel tweeted on Monday: “Are you really willing to go vote ‘Yes’ when people campaigning for a ‘No’ are getting JAILED? Is this your ‘democracy’”?
“So long as the government jails “No” voters,” he continued, “then you’re not participating in a democratic referendum, but in systematic oppression.”
Al-Shazly, the architect, insists that any opposition to the government must be squelched because those who are protesting are being paid under the table — or they are Muslim Brotherhood members. Like Al-Shazly, many Egyptians say the government’s heavy-handed response to opposition, whether it’s from secular activists or Islamists, is necessary.
“The Muslim Brotherhood wanted to convert our country into another Somalia,” Al-Shazly said in front of a dozen men waiting to vote. “We want our country back.”