As Egypt Votes On New Constitution, Space For Dissent Closes

Cairo University students, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, protest in front of security forces in Cairo on Jan. 10. The government has outlawed Morsi's political party and declared it a terrorist group. i i

hide captionCairo University students, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, protest in front of security forces in Cairo on Jan. 10. The government has outlawed Morsi's political party and declared it a terrorist group.

Mohammed Bendari/APA /Landov
Cairo University students, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, protest in front of security forces in Cairo on Jan. 10. The government has outlawed Morsi's political party and declared it a terrorist group.

Cairo University students, who are supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood and deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, protest in front of security forces in Cairo on Jan. 10. The government has outlawed Morsi's political party and declared it a terrorist group.

Mohammed Bendari/APA /Landov

Egyptian voters go the polls Tuesday and Wednesday in a constitutional referendum. The vote comes at a time Egypt is witnessing what many analysts call a full-blown counterrevolution. While the country remains dangerously polarized, the space for dissent is closing. The government continues a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, but now it's also targeting the youth activists whose names and faces are synonymous with the 2011 revolution.

About 50 men gathered outside a police station in eastern Cairo on Sunday night. They were waiting for a lawyer to come out and brief them on three of their friends, who were arrested earlier in the evening.

Their crime? Passing out fliers with the words "No to the constitution." The men are from the Egyptian Strong Party, which was mobilizing a "no" vote. But now the party will boycott the vote to protest the arrests.

One man in the group tells the others that someone else from their party was just arrested in Fayoum, south of Cairo.

Egyptians walk under a billboard with Arabic that reads, "yes to the constitution, Egyptians love their country," in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 11. Many Egyptians say there is no real choice in the country's referendum on a new constitution. i i

hide captionEgyptians walk under a billboard with Arabic that reads, "yes to the constitution, Egyptians love their country," in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 11. Many Egyptians say there is no real choice in the country's referendum on a new constitution.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptians walk under a billboard with Arabic that reads, "yes to the constitution, Egyptians love their country," in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 11. Many Egyptians say there is no real choice in the country's referendum on a new constitution.

Egyptians walk under a billboard with Arabic that reads, "yes to the constitution, Egyptians love their country," in Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 11. Many Egyptians say there is no real choice in the country's referendum on a new constitution.

Amr Nabil/AP

Another man asks why people who say "yes" to the constitution are allowed to hold rallies and we are not?

He answers his own question: There is no real choice.

For many Egyptians, it's a worrying conclusion in a country that has hurtled down an ever more alarming path since the popularly backed military coup on July 3, 2013, that ousted Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power.

At first the crackdown targeted only the brotherhood and its followers. But more recently, it's been expanded to include some of the most prominent youth activists in Egypt, many of whom sparked the 2011 revolution and also backed the military coup against Morsi.

Three prominent activists have already been sentenced to three years in prison. Others have been convicted as well. And activists who continue to voice dissent are being harassed and threatened.

Taped phone conversations are being leaked to smear them publicly. And journalists aren't spared either: Three Al-Jazeera English journalists are in jail, described as terrorists simply for reporting on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at the University of Oklahoma, says this week's vote on the constitution is less a vote on the charter and more a referendum on the military-backed government and the presidential aspirations of military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.

"This is about the ouster of Morsi and Gen. Sissi and Egypt's new path forward," he says.

For the military-backed government, Shehata says, turnout is key. A big turnout will be seen as a "yes" to what Shehata can only describe as a counterrevolution.

A man carries a box full of voting ballots on Jan. 13 outside a school in Cairo that will be used as a polling station during the constitutional referendum this week. i i

hide captionA man carries a box full of voting ballots on Jan. 13 outside a school in Cairo that will be used as a polling station during the constitutional referendum this week.

AFP/Getty Images
A man carries a box full of voting ballots on Jan. 13 outside a school in Cairo that will be used as a polling station during the constitutional referendum this week.

A man carries a box full of voting ballots on Jan. 13 outside a school in Cairo that will be used as a polling station during the constitutional referendum this week.

AFP/Getty Images

"If they get a large turnout, which is what they hope, and also a "yes" vote with a large margin, that will be used as the justification, the legitimation, for all the changes that have taken place, and more specifically, the ouster of Morsi on July 3, 2013," he says.

The changes Shehata is referring to do not bode well for democracy. The government banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political force in the country, and declared it a terrorist organization. A new protest law bars unauthorized public demonstrations.

The streets of Egypt's capital are plastered with posters calling on voters to "Say yes to the constitution and no to terrorism." TV advertisements tell voters that "a yes to the constitution is a yes to the revolution. It says, let the world know this was a real revolution. Let them know our people, let them know our size."

Local newspapers are sending out mass text messages urging people to vote "yes" for the love of the country.

And the government makes no apologies for the crackdown at a time when Egypt, it says, is facing real dangers in what it describes as a "war on terror." There have been bombings over the past few months and there are still regular clashes between security forces and brotherhood supporters.

Badr Abdel Atty, spokesman for Egypt's Foreign Ministry, says the constitutional referendum is part of the process of resolving the crisis here.

And the arrests, he says, are aimed at protecting Egypt's path to democracy.

"You have one part of the society using violence and terrorism to achieve political objectives," he says. "This is the most dangerous issue here."

The fear among analysts and activists is that this "war on terror" will be used to excuse human rights violations. In some cases it already has.

But for a lot of Egyptians — tired of the roller coaster of the past three years, the violence and the bad economy — stability is more important than human rights now. If there is stability, they say, there will be democracy.

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