By Hamza Hendawi
CAIRO: With a presidential run by Egypt’s powerful military chief seeming more likely by the day, this week’s constitution referendum, to be held amid a massive security force deployment, is widely seen as a vote of confidence in the regime he installed last summer.
The charter is an overhaul of an Islamist-backed constitution adopted in December 2012 during the rule of Mohammed Morsi, the ousted president, and his Muslim Brotherhood. Drafted by a 50-member panel of mostly secular-leaning politicians, it criminalizes discrimination, enshrines gender equality and guarantees a raft of freedoms and rights.
The vote on Tuesday and Wednesday provides the increasingly popular military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with a first electoral test since he ousted Morsi in a military coup on July 3. A comfortable “yes” vote and a respectable turnout would be seen as bestowing legitimacy, while undermining the Islamists’ argument that Morsi remains the nation’s elected president.
“It is not just a referendum on the constitution. It is on many things, including el-Sissi and the fight against violence by militants,” said analyst and columnist Makram Mohammed Ahmed, who is close to the military. “I cannot imagine that a big ‘yes’ majority will automatically usher in a new legitimacy that will be swiftly recognized by the West, but it is a good constitution that must be given its due.”
With the stakes so high, authorities are undertaking a massive security operation to protect polling stations and voters. The deployment involves 160,000 soldiers, including elite paratroopers and commandos backed by armored vehicles and helicopters, according to military and security officials.
An even larger number of police — over 200,000 officers — will also participate. Fearing militant attacks, troops are being stationed at airports around the country to be flown to sites of possible attacks at short notice. And military aircraft will be used to monitor rarely used desert routes to major cities, a tactic designed to stop the infiltration of militants, said the officials, who agreed to discuss the details of the operation only on condition of anonymity.
Snipers will be deployed at secret locations close to polling stations, they said. Provinces that witness major outbreaks of violence will be sealed off from the rest of the country while the police and army move to contain it.
The charter adopted under Morsi won some 64 percent of the vote on a low turnout of about 30 percent — partly caused by the then-opposition calling for a boycott of the vote.
This week, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers who are urging a boycott.
Their argument is that the entire process, beginning with the coup, is illegitimate, and they are planning mass demonstrations on voting days.