Egyptians to vote on new constitution amidst boycotts and apathy

An alleged supporter of ousted President Mohamed Morsi clashes with Egyptian security forces in front of Cairo University, Egypt 12th January 2014 (Image: Nameer Galal/Demotix)

An alleged supporter of ousted President Mohamed Morsi clashes with Egyptian security forces in front of Cairo University, Egypt 12th January 2014 (Image: Nameer Galal/Demotix)

Egyptians head to polling stations on Tuesday to vote on a revised constitution heralded by Egypt’s military-backed government as a” first step in the country’s democratic transition” and billed as a blueprint for the “new Egypt.”

The amended document has also been hailed by analysts as one that “enshrines personal and political rights in stronger language than in previous constitutions.” Rights advocates however, have expressed fears that the enormous powers and privileges the ‘new’ charter grants the military could undermine those rights, rendering them meaningless .

The public is being reassured that the revised charter is “a vast improvement to the 2012 Muslim Brotherhood constitution” that was scrapped when the Islamist former President Mohamed Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests in July. In an Op-Ed published in the New York Times last week, Amr Moussa, a former Foreign Minister under deposed President Hosni Mubarak and the Head of the 50-member committee that amended the 2012 Constitution, said that the document –in its new form– “meets the needs and aspirations of all Egyptians” unlike the previous charter which he said, “had been rushed through by a single dominating political faction and answered only to its priorities”.

Ads in the local media and on billboards across the country promote a ‘yes’ vote on the charter, portraying its ratification as a ‘patriotic’ act. Public service messages broadcast on radio and TV stations tell Egyptians that even if they disagree with some of its provisions, the charter is “not permanent—Egypt is.” A ‘yes” vote will “complete the unfinished revolution Egyptians began on June 30,” intones the broadcaster in reference to the day millions took to the streets demanding the downfall of the Islamist regime.

The new charter grants Egyptians greater freedom of expression and belief and ensures equality between men and women. The provision on women’s rights says the state must take necessary measures to guarantee women have proper representation in legislative councils, hold senior public and administrative posts, and are appointed to judicial institutions. It obligates the state to provide protection to women against any form of violence. Meanwhile, articles that gave the previous constitution an “Islamist flair” have either been removed or replaced by others that limit the scope of Islamic law or Shariah. The charter also reaffirms the country’s commitment to its obligations under all previously signed international treaties and agreements including human rights covenants. It also empowers lawmakers to remove the president with a two-thirds majority, obliges the president to declare his financial assets and bans political parties founded on religion, sect or region. All of the above signal victory for Egypt’s liberals and rights advocates who had been vocal in their concerns about flaws in the previous constitution including provisions on religious freedoms and other liberties and rights of women and minorities.

But skeptics caution it may be too early to rejoice.

While some analysts hail a provision banning the prosecution of journalists for ‘publication offences’ as one that will “reinforce press freedom,” a widening government crackdown on critical voices in recent weeks has dashed hopes for greater freedom of expression. Secular revolutionary activists, bloggers and journalists have been targeted along with thousands of Brotherhood supporters and sympathizers, the majority of whom have been imprisoned on trumped up political charges. Four prominent activists (including iconic symbols of the 2011 Revolution Alaa Abdel Fattah and Ahmed Maher) languish behind bars for “taking part in unauthorized protests.” Meanwhile, three journalists working for the Al Jazeera English service remain in custody pending investigations on charges of ‘spreading lies and belonging to a terrorist cell.”

Another provision banning the closure of media outlets for what they broadcast or publish would have been plausible had it come before all channels linked to the Muslim Brotherhood were shut down in the wake of the military takeover of the country in July.

Critics meanwhile, cynically dismiss the provision giving citizens the right to freedom of assembly and demonstrations. They argue that a controversial new law criminalizing protests without prior permission from the authorities nullifies the provision.

And while the revised charter says freedom of belief is “absolute’–whereas the previous charter said it was “protected’– the freedom to practice religion and to establish places of worship is restricted to believers in the three “divine faiths’: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. This leaves the country’s Baha’is –who have long suffered discrimination –without protection or rights and may subject them to further persecution. Shia Muslims too face harassment in Egypt, according to the US State Department’s religious freedom 2012 report. Persistent hate speech culminated in the lynching of four Shias by a mob of ultraconservative Salafis in the village of Abu Musallim in Greater Cairo in June Earlier this month, a group of Canadian Shia pilgrims were barred entry into the country and were turned back by security officials.

But the biggest disappointment for secular activists and pro-democracy groups has been the retention of disputed provisions giving the military special privileges and allowing the continuation of military trials for civilians. Article 204 says that “civilians can be tried by military judges for attacks on armed forces, military installations, and military personnel.” Critics fear the provision could be applied to protesters, journalists and dissidents. For the next two presidential terms, the armed forces will also have the right to name the defense minister — an arrangement that positions the military as the main power broker, giving it autonomy above any civilian oversight. Moreover, the charter fails to ensure transparency for the armed forces’ budget allowing it to remain beyond civilian scrutiny.

“Failure of the charter to curb the military’s privileges paves the way for a bigger role for the army in becoming the main power broker,” said Hossam el-Hamalawy, a journalist and member of the Revolutionary Socialists Movement which played a key role in the 2011 mass uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak.

Despite its shortcomings, the charter is widely expected to be endorsed in the upcoming referendum. The majority of non-Islamists — a term often used to refer to Egypt’s leftists, liberals and Christians — are likely to approve the new charter simply because they yearn for a return to the stability and security they once enjoyed under authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. An economic recession and rising unemployment have taken their toll on weary Egyptians whose livelihoods have been disrupted by the work stoppages and ongoing street protests. The economy had been on the brink of collapse before Saudi Arabia and other oil-rich Gulf states offered Egypt a multi-billion dollar rescue package to shore it up.

Analysts say the “yes” vote will not be an endorsement of the charter per se but rather, a nod of approval for the return of the military to power. They say the constitution will pass as an endorsement of Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah El Sissi, the country’s de facto ruler, who on Saturday confirmed he would run in the country’s next presidential elections “if the army gives me a mandate and if the people of Egypt ask me to do so”. General Sissi is idolized by millions of Egyptians who see him as the “saviour of the Revolution” despite the repressive measures used by the military to silence dissent since Morsi’s ouster.

Meanwhile, supporters of the ousted Islamist president have vowed to boycott what they call the “military” vote and are urging others to do likewise. Sheikh Youssef Qaradawi, a prominent Qatari-based Muslim Brotherhood cleric — who faces trial in absentia after the interim government branded him a ‘terrorist’ — has issued a religious edict or “fatwa” prohibiting Egyptians from voting in the referendum.

Some political groups have also declared their intention to boycott the vote while others have announced their outright rejection of the charter. The Strong Egypt Party, established in 2012 by former Brotherhood member Abdel Moneim Aboul Fottouh has said it opposes the constitution on grounds that “it fails to promote social justice and gives too much power to the President.” Four of the party’s members were arrested last week in Cairo for hanging up posters promoting a “no” vote. The April Six Movement — one of two main groups that organized and planned the mass protests that led to Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow — has also announced it would stay away from the ballot box, citing “the violent crackdown on Islamist protesters” as a reason. Other revolutionary groups like the Third Square — a loose coalition of leftists, liberals and moderate Islamists opposing both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood — have also said they would refrain from voting.

The enthusiasm and vigour that characterized the polls held after Mubarak’s overthrow have been replaced by disengagement and the mood of apathy that prevailed during the autocratic era of Hosni Mubarak. When asked if they will vote in the referendum, many ordinary Egyptians will answer, “What constitution? We want food for our children.” Many of them say they will not stand in line and wait for hours as they did in previous polls held during the last three years.

“I voted for Morsi in the last presidential election,” Mohamed Abdalla, a bearded taxi driver said. “What good did that do? Where is my vote now?”

This article was posted on 13 Jan 2014 at

In post-Morsi Egypt journalists toe the military line or self censor

Egyptians gathered on the in Corniche near Qasr Nil Bridge in July 2013 to celebrate news of the announcement by the Egyptian Army Chief General el Sisi, that President Morsi had been removed from power in "response to the will of the people." (Photo: Sharron Ward / Demotix)

Egyptians gathered on the in Corniche near Qasr Nil Bridge in July 2013 to celebrate news of the announcement by the Egyptian Army Chief General el Sisi, that President Morsi had been removed from power in “response to the will of the people.” (Photo: Sharron Ward / Demotix)

Last week, when Egyptian security forces violently dispersed activists rallying against a controversial new anti-protest law, Egyptian media was full of praise for them the following day. Instead of condemning the excessive use force by riot police who beat, sexually assaulted and detained scores of opposition protesters, newspaper editors portrayed the Interior Ministry as “the victor” in the confrontation over the new gag law.

“The Interior Ministry has passed the test on the anti-protest law,” read Wednesday’s bold red headline in the semi-official Al Ahram daily. The independent Al Watan, meanwhile, declared on its front page that the Ministry of Interior had “decidedly resolved the battle over the anti-protest law.”

Headlines, editorials and articles labelling democracy activists “anarchists and “thugs” signal that most Egyptian media has reverted to its old pre-revolution ways, siding with the military-backed government against the opposition. During the January 2011 mass uprising that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian media had vilified the opposition activists, describing them as “foreign agents” and “hired thugs.”

Media discourse in Egypt today is reminiscent of the Mubarak era. Then, almost all media outlets had adopted the state line and carefully avoided crossing the so-called ‘red lines’. The only difference is that today, the media has voluntarily and ungrudgingly aligned itself with the military-backed government. During Mubarak’s tenure journalists were motivated by fear of falling out of favour with the authoritarian regime. Ironically, since Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi was toppled by military-backed protests last July, the Egyptian media’s support for the country’s powerful military has come with little coercion from the generals who are riding a wave of popularity and ultra-nationalist sentiment.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the Egyptian media has glorified the military while persistently demonising both the Muslim Brotherhood and the deposed Islamist President, continuing the vilification trend it had started when the former president was still in power. Morsi’s supporters have consistently been branded “terrorists” and “liars” by Egypt’s state-owned and private media alike. As Morsi’s supporters staged a sit in last July demanding “the reinstatement of the legitimate president”, Youssef El Husayni, a presenter on the privately-owned channel ON TV accused the protesters of murder, saying that they “deserved to be hanged.”  Other TV talk show hosts also accused the anti-coup protesters of “getting paid to stay on the streets”. On November 4, the day Morsi’s trial began, the former president was labelled “hysterical” by several Egyptian newspapers including the independent El Youm el Sabe’e and El Masry El Youm for insisting he was still the country’s legitimate president and could not be tried by the court. He was also criticized by journalists for refusing to wear his prison uniform to court–a decision that drew unfavourable comparisons with his predecessor Hosni Mubarak who had previously appeared in court in the white garment.

Earlier this month, the privately-owned network CBC suspended satirist Bassem Youssef’s wildly popular show Al Bernameg (The Programme) after an episode that poked fun at the public fervour for the military and in particular, at the ‘Sissi-mania’ gripping the country. Egypt’s De facto ruler El Sissi earned the adoration of millions of Egyptians when he ousted Morsi, positioning himself as the “guardian of the people’s will” and claiming he had “saved the country from a looming civil war.” He has since been compared by some Egyptian media to Egypt’s former ultra-nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser. In recent months, there have increasingly, been calls for El Sissi to run in the next presidential election.

Surprisingly, the decision to take Youssef’s show off the air came from CBC’s senior management not–as many had initially believed–from strongman El Sissi. Youssef’s last episode met with a public outcry and almost immediately after the broadcast, CBC issued a statement distancing itself from the comedian’s views. The station blamed the suspension of the show on “technical” and “business” issues rather than on the show’s editorial content. CBC’s decision has led to fierce public criticism of the network which had previously given Youssef a free hand to mock former President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist group. Throughout Morsi’s one year term in office, Youssef had relentlessly kept up his attacks on the former President despite repeated threats of legal action against him. Many of Youssef’s fans have threatened to boycott CBC after the TV satirist quit the channel over the suspension of the show.

Meanwhile, the “red lines” are back at Egyptian State TV where show presenters and anchors have kept up the pro-military rhetoric in recent months for fear of being stigmatized as “pro-Muslim Brotherhood ” and “fifth columnists.” The latter is a term that is being widely used to describe sympathizers or supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood whose activities were banned by a court ruling in November. Presenters who are suspected of being sympathetic to the outlawed Islamist group are being deprived of air time. Several presenters have faced investigations in recent weeks over “their shameful links to the enemy Islamist group”. Journalists have been repeatedly accused of “destroying the country and wreaking havoc to abort the goals of the revolution.” A list of names of so-called “fifth column TV presenters and activists” has gone viral on social media networks Facebook and Twitter after being posted on several local websites with the declared aim of “exposing and sidelining the traitors.” Those on the list–which includes reform leader El Baradei, revolutionary activists and prominent TV journalists known for their objectivity–have also being accused of receiving foreign funding.

Many journalists have again resorted to practising self-censorship for fear of being labelled “enemies of the state.” Ironically, the pressure on them has come from fellow-journalists rather than from the generals themselves. Those piling the pressure are journalists who were either appointed by the ousted Mubarak regime or others with strong links with the country’s notorious security services. In September, controversial talk show host Tewfik Okasha, who is also the owner of the private El Fara’een Satellite Channel, gave Defence Minister El Sissi “an ultimatum to purge the media of fifth columnists”. Abdel Rahim Ali, the chief editor of El Bawaba news site, meanwhile told Al Midan TV in September that “those who oppose the reinstatement of state security are from the fifth column.” He did not hesitate in naming the activists and political figures he suspected had links with the “Islamist terror organization.” Responding to a list of suspect-fifth columnists published in the state-owned Al Ahram El Arabi in September, veteran columnist Fahmi Howeidi warned that “such accusations only serve to further empower the country’s notorious state security service, the SSS.”  The SSS, known in Egypt as “Amn El Dawla” was a symbol of police oppression under ousted President Hosni Mubarak. It was disbanded in March 2011 only to return a month later, albeit under a different name–the National Security Service.

The “Fifth Column Campaign” targeting government critics with the aim of silencing voices of dissent, has succeeded in fulfilling its objective, lament rights campaigners.

“In this atmosphere of deep political divisions and at a time when anyone can be accused of espionage for merely mentioning such ‘taboo’ words as ‘coup’ and ‘reconciliation’, many in our profession have opted to play it safe by siding with the stronger power–the military. This is an indirect way of muzzling the press and unfortunately, it is working,” Sameh Kassem, Cultural Editor who works for the independent Al Dostour said.

In the ‘new Egypt’ –now once again under the tight grip of military rule — where scores of journalists have been assaulted and detained for covering the anti-coup protests, the critics are falling silent.

This article was published on 3 Dec 2013 at