A new banner advertising a ‘constitution for all Egyptians’ depicts an unlikely looking collection of people. Standing in a line, from right to left, is a soldier, a man with downs syndrome, an Egyptian farmer, a woman wearing a suit and a doctor wearing a stethoscope round his neck, smiling. Of the five figures, three are westerners; none have beards and none are wearing the headscarf. On where the posters came from Amr Moussa, head of the constitution committee, claimed he had no idea: “I think they were funded by businessmen,” he said.
The picture is the latest PR effort adopted by the military-backed administration to promote their idea of the inclusive Egypt citizens could live in if they vote yes in the upcoming constitutional referendum. This is not the first time the regime have sought help in rebranding themselves. In October MEMO reported that they hired the Glover Park Group to improve the image of Egypt’s coup. GPG’s managing director, Arik Ben-Zvi, served in the Israeli army and one of their senior executives served as national deputy political director of the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC.
The opposition is not just the Brotherhood
If the last few weeks are anything to go by, the interim government need all the help they can get in shaking off their reputation as a brutal administration and pulling in supporters. Last month they attracted international condemnation when 21 women were arrested at a protest in Egypt; seven were minors and so sentenced to juvenile detention, whilst the remaining 14 were sentenced to 11 years. The girls were later released on suspended sentences, with the promise they would be pardoned.
Discharging the girls had a lot to do with the worldwide attention their case had garnered. It was hard for the interim government to cast the young girls, dressed in white and holding flowers, as ‘terrorists’ as they have with so many other pro-Morsi protesters. Rather than quieten the women, their detention emboldened them and the seven minors have promised to keep on protesting in Egypt. Their case proved that continued pressure on the regime would ultimately give way to results.
The latest wave of student demonstrations in Egypt is another example of how the heavy handed tactics of the security forces is encouraging protests, rather than quashing them. In the last week rallies have taken place in Al-Azhar, Alexandria, Beni Suef, Assiut, Suez and Mansoura. At the end of November, thousands united to protest against the death of Mohamed Reda who was shot by police at a protest in Cairo University.
Whilst the interim administration blames the Brotherhood for whipping up disorder, the demonstrations are actually comprised of more groups than just the pro-Morsi supporters who were gathered in Ennahda and Rabia Adawiya Square in August and are indicative of how the opposition is growing and widening. The detention of a number of high profile, secular activists – such as Alaa Abd Fattah, whose wife was beaten in his home when he was arrested – has also drawn others into the opposition.
Draconian measures have done nothing to help this sentiment. The decision to put the country under emergency law in August, releasing Mubarak from prison and more recently signing off a controversial assembly bill which gives security officials the authority to forbid protests if they consider them a threat to national security, has sparked fears among Egyptians that the deep state has returned and the 25 January revolution is well and truly lost.
The constitutional referendum
On Sunday 1 December, a 50-member citizen committee – which doesn’t include any members of the Muslim Brotherhood – approved the new constitution that will replace the charter issued under Morsi. Whilst Amnesty International have said certain parts are an improvement from his – for example it prohibits torture with no statute of limitations, criminalises human trafficking and offers state protection of women from violence – it still “falls short of Egypt’s international human rights obligations.” As the country decides to vote yes, no or to boycott the referendum on 14 and 15 January, it remains to be seen how the opposition will move forward from here.
Worryingly, the charter offers more power to the very institutions that have cracked down on protesters and caused horrific human rights violations in Egypt. Though the army already enjoy autonomy thanks to the 2012 version, this is an extension of that, demonstrated neatly by its inclusion of an article which allows for the unfair trial of civilians in military courts. During the army’s rule from February 2011 – June 2012, over 12,000 civilians have been tried unfairly in such courts.
It also gives the army the authority to approve the appointment of the defence minister for the next two presidential terms, raising serious questions as to how accountable the army will then be held for their actions. In the August massacre up to 1,000 demonstrators were killed, yet so far the government has failed to investigate or to hold security forces involved accountable. This constitution will only oversee an extension of this.
And whilst the retrial of two police officers, charged with torturing and killing Khaled Said in 2010 by forcing a plastic bag down his throat, has been postponed and the two officers released on bail, the new charter states that a council of senior police officers will be consulted on security policy. This would make reform almost inconceivable.
Morsi’s constitution was criticised for increasing the role of Islamic law; the new charter has very little input from Islamic groups. It bans political parties based on religion, meaning parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood would be forbidden. The constitution stipulates that freedom of religion is guaranteed for Islam, Christianity and Judaism. Yet since the coup thousands of imams have been barred from preaching and many mosques have been shut down as part of the widespread crackdown on Islamists – or in the name of “tolerance” and “moderate Islamic values” according to Mohamed Goma, minister of religious endowments. Religious minorities, such as Baha’is, are excluded from the right to worship and are therefore without protection.
How will the opposition stand up against the constitution?
Whilst the Salafi Nour Party (and therefore the only Islamist party) and Tagammu party, part of the National Salvation Front Coalition, have called on their supporters to vote yes for the draft constitution, the anti-coup alliance have rejected the transition process. Several opposition groups have threatened to boycott the poll, or to vote no.
The Brotherhood believe that participating in the election, even if just to vote no, will legitimise the military-backed regime and road map. Instead, they are protesting and holding out for Morsi’s reinstatement and a return to the 2012 constitution that was drafted whilst he was President.
Strong Egypt, the centrist party headed by Abdel Moneim Abdoul-Fotouh, has announced it will campaign for a no vote on the grounds that the charter doesn’t respect social justice, as will the Revolutionary Socialists, No to Military Trials, and the Salafist Watan Party. The 6 April Movement is also campaigning against the constitution on the grounds of its military trials for civilians, that it immunises Sisi for eight years and that its articles on social justice are not sufficient to reach the goals of the 25 January revolution.
Whilst the Carter Centre human rights NGO have said they will send out a small, rather than an expert assessment team to monitor, Tamarod – the movement founded to oppose Morsi, support the military led government and whose first choice for president is Sisi – have said they will be monitoring the referendum by placing up to 10 representatives in Egypt’s 13,000 polling stations.
Interim President Adly Mansour has called on opponents to “give up on their stubbornness” and to stop “following a mirage” and join the nation, and has denounced their boycott as a political manoeuvre designed to disrupt the roadmap and constitutional referendum. Given the events of recent weeks and the growing opposition inside Egypt and out, a yes vote is one of the only chances he has left of renewing popular support, or attempting to show the world that he is still enjoying public backing for his military-assisted façade.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.