Egyptians were asked, yet again, to vote on a constitution, but it was really about legitimising a military coup d’etat. Since the military overthrew the democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, last summer, it has maintained that it was acting on the will of the people. Led by General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Egyptian military has been trying to dodge international criticism for overthrowing a democratically elected government.
The censure of Egypt has included the United States suspending valuable military and economic aid, to the tune of $1.3 billion. While the Egyptian military had gone to great lengths to show the international community that it had some 30 million people pour into the streets on June 30 to support the coup, the question of how many really supported it remains unknown.
In many ways, the referendum on the constitution is about getting the electorate to show its support for the coup and its disdain for the Muslim Brotherhood’s tenure in office. The referendum has had little to do with the substance of the constitution. After all, the majority of Egyptians have not read the latest draft of the constitution, not to mention the sad fact that 40 per cent of the population are illiterate.
But the military generals don’t really care if people have read the revised constitution. The latest draft of the constitution is not very different from the 2012 version rushed through by the constitutional committee appointed by Morsi. This version improves the language in some references to women and minorities, but it still discriminates against those from the non-Abrahamic religions and still says that Egypt follows Islamic law.
The main change in this version is a cementing of military and police autonomy and authority. Military budgets and expenditures are now constitutionally off-limits for inquiry or criticism. There are estimates that the military holds 20 to 40 per cent of the Egyptian economy, which produces everything from washing machines and macaroni to arms. Now, the armed forces’ infiltration into the already poor economy is protected from any legal oversight. Further, the latest draft imposes heavy penalties for anyone who insults or undermines the military, its personnel and its installations.
With the military controlling a large part of the economy and where many of its installations are unknown or operate in the shadow of the real economy, what prevents a military factory producing macaroni from arresting a competitor-manufacturer for questioning its pricing policies? Sadly, the military regime has already proven itself capable of and willing to cast a wide net on those whom it deems to be enemies of the state.
Today, political prisoners in Egypt include not only the upper echelons of the Muslim Brotherhood, but also youth groups, journalists, civil society actors and others who have questioned the military regime and its policies. Many of the youth leaders who had organised movements to overthrow the Hosni Mubarak regime are also imprisoned now for “undermining the state” by questioning the coup and its gag order on civil society.
Egypt is now one of the deadliest places for journalists to operate in — even worse than Somalia, according to media freedom watch groups. One political party, which tried to campaign with posters in favour of voting “no” in the referendum, found some of its staff arrested as well. Liberal activists and former members of parliament not aligned with the Brotherhood but critical of the military regime coup are also barred from travelling outside Egypt and are under gag orders.
This is the climate of censorship prevailing in Egypt, and unfortunately, many Egyptians support their military for restoring order and removing an embarrassing dispensation like the Morsi regime. According to the referendum results, the draft constitution has won the support of a large majority.
But then, those who would have voted against the constitution were unlikely to participate in the polls, in any case. What is worrying for the process of democratisation in Egypt is that there is electoral support for the coup and its military backers — much to the detriment of Egypt’s political development. The referendum on the constitution is a sideshow for the real threat facing Egypt: political repression and censorship of liberal thought.
By: Bessma Momani
The writer is associate professor, Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo, Canada and non-resident fellow, Brookings Institution. She has co-edited ‘Shifting Geo-Economic Power of the Gulf’.
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