Dispatch

'We Want to Move On'

What do Egyptians really care about in their country's constitutional referendum? Not the constitution, for starters.

CAIRO — The first day of a much-hyped constitutional referendum confirmed two things that most Egyptians already knew. First, this third referendum in as many years has little to do with the actual document being voted on. And second, there is virtually no question of what the result will be: The constitution will pass by a landslide.

The two-day referendum, which began Tuesday, Jan. 14, is widely seen as an opportunity to end -- or at least mitigate -- the political debates that have been threatening to rip Egypt apart. The country has been deeply polarized since July 3, 2013, when the military deposed President Mohamed Morsi. The previous constitution was suspended, and a new road map for a political transition, led by a military-appointed government, was established. This government, which has banned the previously ruling Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on street protesters, wrote the newly proposed constitution. The document incorporates more rights and freedoms than the last constitution, but it also guarantees greater autonomy for the military, still affirms principles of Islamic law as the main sources of legislation, limits the establishment of trade unions to one per profession, and leaves room for civilians to be tried in military courts -- all causes of popular discontent.

Yet in voting, many people I spoke to said their primary interest is not in enacting a particular government charter; rather, it is in finding a way to move the country forward and to bring attention back to the much-needed social and economic reforms that inspired the 2011 revolution. Which is to say, they just want to get past it.

Everyone also seemed to silently acknowledge the elephant sitting in the polling rooms: A no vote is not even an option.

The government's mass-media campaign for the referendum has delivered a clear message. It hasn't been implied -- it has literally been spelled out across the country. Not-so-subtle billboards reading "YES to the referendum, NO to darkness" are echoed by television and radio ads declaring, "YES to the referendum, NO to terrorism." (The transitional government has declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.)

Muslim Brotherhood supporters refuse to acknowledge the road map developed after July 3 and thus are boycotting the vote; they adamantly maintain that reinstalling Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, is the only legitimate process for the country to move forward. Meanwhile, for many activists and political parties involved in the 2011 revolution, participating in the referendum was not really a choice. Those who have attempted to advocate a no vote have faced harsh state retaliation. The most cited example to date has been the arrest of several members of the Strong Egypt Party a few days prior to the vote for distributing posters encouraging a vote against the constitution.

The truth of the matter is that such a dramatic crackdown was probably unnecessary. Historically, there has never been a no vote in any of Egypt's referendums. In fact, it has always been ambiguous as to what the implications of a no vote would really be. The July 3 road map does not even account for such a result.

The only resounding "no" consistently heard around Cairo in the lead-up to the vote was when people were asked whether they had read the constitution. From taxi drivers to youth activists, people seemed surprised by the question. For many -- perhaps most -- Egyptians, the document itself is irrelevant. This goes even for those supporting the military: The referendum for them is ultimately a way of solidifying legitimacy for the July 3 road map. Many people in this camp describe a vote of yes as a mark of the end of the "Muslim Brotherhood reign" and a popular verdict on the removal of Morsi.

In the days prior to the referendum, there was much talk about what the level of turnout would be. The 2012 constitution drafted under Morsi passed with a 63.8 percent rate of approval, but only 32.9 percent of the population voted. For many, this was a clear indication of the lack of support for Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood leadership. Similarly, the percentage of voter turnout this time around will be seen as an indicator of the relative confidence in Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's leadership, as he plans to run for president.

But even with questions about turnout swirling, the primary emphasis for a yes vote has remained on pushing past this period of unrest.

Indeed, most Egyptians are fully aware of the trade-off they are supporting. Even the staunchest backers of the military will admit that there is worry about a return of the police state -- widespread concern about the lack of permitted dissent and the limits being placed on the freedom of expression, the right to demonstrate, and independent media. Yet there is a conscious decision being made to deal away some basic civil liberties for more stability, something more likely with a yes vote.

A large number of Egyptians I spoke to have become apathetic about the political situation, and an even larger number say they never want to see a protest shutting down their streets ever again. Egyptians are quick to emphasize that the goal of the average citizen is no longer a democratic process. Rather, it is to see a steady, strong government that can lead to tangible improvements in everyday lives.

A 56-year-old homemaker perhaps described it best. "For Tantawi's constitution, we said yes; for Morsi's constitution, we said yes for stability; and now we say yes for June 30 and for stability and security. People are tired. We want to move on," she told Mada Masr, a self-described independent and progressive Egyptian media outlet that has provided direct reporting from the polling stations.

The reality, of course, is that the same trade-off has been made before. The assumption that a quick endorsement of a new constitution will lead to Egypt leaping forward into its next chapter is the same one voters made in previous referenda. And in both cases, the stability so desperately yearned for did not materialize.

Egyptian activists who reject both the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are watching from the sidelines with dismay as, they say, history repeats itself. It's the same play, but with different actors or people in new roles. The plot isn't new: public demonization, mass arrests, criminal trials, and a fast-forwarded political process. And though it's too soon to tell, many activists fear that the play will end as it has before -- that a military-led government leaning toward consolidating and maintaining its power will repeat the same mistakes of its predecessors.

If this happens, critics say, there's a risk that Egyptians will just hit the reset button once more. Then, the play will start all over from the beginning.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Welcome to the Department of Morale Affairs

Belly dancers, billboards, and Egypt's military propaganda machine.

CAIRO — "We will say yes; we will say yes twice," sings one of Egypt's most famous belly dancers, as she seductively sashays across the television screen. Clad in an Egyptian flag dress, Sama el-Masry outlines the finer points of the country's new constitution, which Egyptians voted on in a referendum on Tuesday, Jan. 14.

In case one happens to be focusing on gyrating hips and misses any of these finer points, no matter; the commercial is broadcast every 15 minutes on the celebrity's new TV channel. And it's just one example of how Egypt's military, business, and media elite have banded together to drum up support for the draft charter -- and bolster the new military-backed political order in Cairo.

Egypt's generals suspended the previous constitution, which was approved during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi, when they overthrew the Islamist president in July 2013. Since then, the interim government has waged a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood's supporters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands in jail. It has also declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, blaming it for the spike in terrorist attacks that have wracked the country in recent months.

The new government has not so subtly suggested that a high turnout and an overwhelming yes vote would confer the country's stamp of approval on Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's political road map, the next marker being elections. Sisi said over the weekend that he would run for president only if there were a popular demand for his candidacy. So, this time, he's leaving nothing to chance.

That's where the Department of Morale Affairs comes in. The military's propaganda agency -- responsible for managing the Egyptian Army's public image and boosting goodwill toward troops -- is waging a nonstop war on the airwaves, recently releasing a series of short music videos that contain thinly veiled calls for a "yes" vote.

"Change is in your hands; come on, continue your revolution," sings an angelic children's choir in one video, referencing the June 30 protests against Morsi that ushered in July's coup. "This is the most important step to start the road."

The song, which is also performed by a women's choir and a chorus of men in other videos, was written by composer Amr Mostafa, famous for claiming that the 2011 uprising against Mubarak was "photoshopped' and instigated by Vodafone, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola.

The use of children to deliver a pro-military message is particularly frequent. In another video, Egyptian youth -- dressed in military uniforms -- parade around the pyramids and Cairo's Unknown Soldier Memorial. "Egypt needs all hands united," they sing. "A unity as strong as steel."

But unity's a tough sell in Egypt these days. The circumstances in which the new constitution was written were contentious, though it has received some praise from human rights groups for improving the rights of women and tempering the religious language in the charter written under Morsi. The draft constitution calls for "the protection of women against all forms of violence," while the 2012 constitution only mentioned women in the context of the family. The new constitution still refers to Islamic law as the main source of legislation, but it excised a controversial article that called for a stricter interpretation of sharia and explicitly forbids the formation of political parties "on the basis of religion."

But if there's any group that stands to really gain from approval of the new constitution, it's the military. A yes vote would cement the military's prerogatives in post-Morsi Egypt. If ratified, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body composed of the country's 21 top generals, will have the power to approve who is appointed defense minister for the next president's first two terms in office. Military trials for civilians would be permitted, and the armed forces budget would remain a secret from all but the military-dominated National Defense Council.

"[The articles of the constitution] have walled the military off from any effective civilian oversight," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and a recently retired professor of national security affairs at the U.S.-based Naval Postgraduate School.

When Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the Department of Morale Affairs countered, stepping up its production of pro-military material. Its aim was to airbrush the military's image after a difficult transition year after dictator Hosni Mubarak's fall. One of the first videos it produced was a 30-minute documentary portraying Sisi as a devout defense minister. Since the military government seized power, it has fanned the flames of a growing cult of personality around Sisi. It's not unusual in Cairo to find the Army chief's face on cupcakes, chocolates, jewelry, even pajama tops. His portrait regularly covers the front pages of newspapers, while supporters glowingly compare him to former military presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.

"It's one of the most important departments of the military and closely tied to military investigations department," said a former officer with ties to the film industry. The department, little known before the 2011 revolution, relies on film school students conscripted into the Army, he said.

But while the Department of Morale Affairs might be enjoying its increased profile, it also benefits from multimillion-dollar campaigns run by Egypt's businessmen, whose financial and political interests have propelled them to join in the propaganda party.

Even before the draft of the constitution was completed, several pro-government businessmen launched a massive campaign calling for a yes vote, billboards for which plaster the streets of Cairo. For many, it's déjà vu all over again: Tarek Nour, who runs the country's largest advertising company, was also behind billboards for Mubarak's 2005 presidential campaign. This time around it's the new constitution.

Business tycoon and politician Naguib Sawiris and his Free Egyptians Party have also poured millions of dollars into print and TV commercials. Sawiris -- whose family fortune grew from military contracts in the 1970s, according to Springborg -- admitted last year to supporting the Tamarod campaign that organized protests calling for Morsi's ouster.

"Our ads are trying to tell the people to continue your revolution; please go out again," Free Egyptians spokesperson Shehab Wagih said.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the silence is deafening. Not a single column in Egypt's mainstream newspapers called for a no vote or a boycott of the referendum -- a stark contrast to the fierce debates that characterized the vote over the 2012 constitution. In fact, even campaigning for a no vote could land you in jail: At least six members of the moderately Islamist Strong Egypt Party, which tentatively supported the military's ouster of Morsi, were arrested for attempting to hang posters asking Egyptians to vote down the new constitution.

At the press conference for the High Elections Commission, the body that runs polls in Egypt, on Monday, Jan. 13, the day before the vote, officials dodged questions about the arrests, saying it wasn't in their remit to comment.

Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the founder of the Strong Egypt Party, said his group would boycott the election. In doing so, they joined the Morsi supporters and the Brotherhood-led "Anti-Coup Alliance," which in a Jan. 13 statement denounced the "sham referendum held by coup leaders on the Egyptians' blood."

"The fact that there is no visible campaign for ‘no' now is telling," human rights lawyer Ragia Omran said. "There are people who want to say no; people should be allowed to say their opinions."

Of course, there's little room for dissent in the halls of the Department of Morale Affairs. As Masry croons in her tricolored dress, "Our position is strong and good, and whoever is going to vote no, tell him, ‘Get out of our country.'" 

MAHMOUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images