MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In Egypt, voters go to the polls tomorrow and Wednesday in a constitutional referendum. The vote comes as Egypt is experiencing what many analysts call a full-blown counter-revolution. The country remains dangerously polarized but the space for dissent is closing. The government continues a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
And as NPR's Leila Fadel reports from Cairo, it's also now targeting the youth activists whose names and faces are synonymous with the 2011 revolution.
LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: About 50 men gathered outside this police station in eastern Cairo on Sunday night. They were waiting for a lawyer to come out and brief them on their three friends inside. The men were arrested earlier in the evening. Their crime: Passing out fliers with the words no to the constitution. They're 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 outside the police station tells the others, someone else from their party was just arrested in Fayoum, south of Cairo. Another man asks: Why are the people who say yes to the constitution allowed to hold rallies and we're not? He answers his own question. There is no real choice.
For many here, it is a worrying conclusion in a country that has hurtled down an ever more alarming path since the popularly-backed military coup on July 3rd that ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power. At first the crackdown only targeted the Brotherhood and its followers. But more recently it's been expanded to include some of the most prominent youth activists in Egypt.
They're the ones who sparked the 2011 revolution and many of them 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 General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
SAMER SHEHATA: This is about the ouster of Morsi and General Sisi and Egypt's new path forward.
FADEL: Shehata says for the military-backed government, turnout is key. A big turnout will be seen as a yes to what Shehata can only describe as a counter-revolution.
SHEHATA: 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(ph) for all the changes that have taken place, and more specifically, the ouster of Morsi on July 3, 2013.
FADEL: The changes Shehata is referring to do not bode well for democracy. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest political force in the country, is banned and was declared 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. And television advertisements like this one...
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: ...tell voters that a yes to the constitution, is a yes to the revolution. It says: 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 where 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.
BADR ABDEL ATTY: You have one part of the society using violence and terrorism to achieve political objectives. This is the most dangerous issue here.
FADEL: 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 last three years, the violence and the bad economy, stability is more important than human rights now.
RAMADAN AHMED OMAR: (Foreign language spoken)
FADEL: At a market in central Cairo, fruit seller Ramadan Ahmed Omar says stability is above all else. If there is stability, he adds, there will be democracy.
Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.
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