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Egyptians vote ‘yes’ in referendum — but what are they approving?

A resounding approval of Egypt’s new constitution will be seen as an endorsement of a military government that has waged a systematic crackdown on dissent.

Egyptians headed to the polls today to vote on a new constitution against the backdrop of fevered patriotism among the military government’s supporters and a far-reaching crackdown on dissent that has left opponents of the constitution afraid to voice their criticism.

It is the first vote since a popularly-backed coup removed former president Mohamed Morsi from power in July.

Voters lined up at polling stations across the capital despite a small explosion at a courthouse in the Imbaba neighborhood in the early morning, a reminder of the insurgency that has been growing in Egypt since Mr. Morsi’s ouster. The explosion caused minor damage to the courthouse facade and blew out windows on buildings across the street, but no one was injured, and some voters said the violence simply made them more determined to vote. In some areas, polls were nearly empty; the Brotherhood-led political alliance called for a boycott of the vote.

With seemingly omnipresent billboards and ads flooding the radio urging Egyptians to vote “yes,” a groundswell of support for the military, and the arrest of thousands of Morsi supporters and Muslim Brotherhood members along with activists who campaigned against the new constitution, there is little suspense in Egypt over the outcome of the vote. The efforts by the military-backed interim government to ensure a resounding “yes” vote illustrate the importance it places on the referendum as an endorsement of Morsi’s ouster.

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A high turnout and strong “yes” vote is important to the interim government “because they believe this will undercut the predominant Muslim Brotherhood claim, which is legitimacy,” says Michael Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “The government will now have its own popularly elected basis for legitimacy that can surpass” previous elections. 

Some voters cast their participation as a rejection of Morsi and support for the new political roadmap outlined by the military. In Cairo’s Dokki neighborhood, voter Mariam Ahmed said the referendum was the fulfillment of the June 30 mass protests against Morsi that led to his ouster. She was so excited to cast her ballot in support of the new constitution, she says, that she only slept three hours the previous night.

“These people are not scared of anything,” she said, gesturing to a long line of voters for whom news of the Imbaba bombing was not a deterrent. “They will not let anyone control them, they will build their country, and they will make it better. We know we can do it, and we will.”

In the months since Morsi’s ouster, the military-backed government has conducted a sustained crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi’s supporters, killing more than 1,000 and imprisoning thousands. Authorities have also cracked down on dissent, detaining activists, passing a draconian law regulating protests, and detaining and even imprisoning journalists. In the last week, police arrested activists for hanging posters urging Egyptians to vote against the constitution, and seven are now facing criminal charges.

But many Egyptians see the crackdown as necessary and voice strong support for the military and police. One voter who asked not to give his name said the arrest of the anti-constitution campaigners may have been a bit “severe,” but was justified because of the “difficult situation” Egypt is currently facing.

The referendum, held in this context, “is an egregiously flawed process. It is not a free vote,” says Mr. Hanna. But, he says, that does not make it irrelevant: high turnout with a strong yes vote would take much of the wind out of the sails of the Brotherhood’s protest movement, he says, which cannot continue long term without popular support. Low turnout would energize Brotherhood protesters.

The Brotherhood-led mostly Islamist alliance formed after Morsi’s ouster announced a boycott of the vote last month, calling it “a false referendum on the military’s illegitimate constitution.” The proposed constitution removes some of the most controversial clauses added by Islamists last year while preserving the privileges of the military, and rights groups say it does not sufficiently guarantee and protect rights and liberties.

The beleaguered organization orchestrates near-daily protests throughout Egypt that are often targeted by police, who break up gatherings and arrest participants. The government has branded the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and blamed it for some of the bombings and attacks on police and government buildings and figures since Morsi’s ouster. The Brotherhood denies participation in violence.

At one polling station, the sound of a radio ad urging Egyptians to say “yes to Egypt and no to terrorism” drifted out from a nearby idling car.

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Many Egyptian citizens hope the vote will lead to increased stability and economic recovery and an end to the chaos that has roiled this nation of more than 80 million for the past three years.

“I will vote ‘yes,’ and everyone will vote ‘yes,’ because we want the country to move forward and we want security,” says taxi driver Ahmed Ali as he stood in line to vote in the capital.

The political instability and violence have taken a harsh economic toll on Egypt, where unemployment and poverty was already high. Hisham Kassem, a veteran rights activist and newspaper publisher, says many will vote yes simply for stability, “which for them means jobs and food.” 

He says the vote is not fair, describing the campaign as “lopsided.” “But the Brotherhood is not a faction trying to get a message across, they’re trying to derail the political process in the country. They’re resorting to violence, terrorism, all sorts of methods to derail the whole process, not just the constitution,” he says. That view was echoed by many voters today.

Morsi supporters, meanwhile, organized scattered protests across Egypt, and at least five people were killed in clashes with police. 

One Egyptian who boycotted the vote called it a “farce.” She refused to give her name because, she said, she feared she would face repercussions for voicing her opinion.

“This is the freedom they are talking about,” she says. “I cannot put up a poster [against the constitution] or say that I will boycott because I could be arrested. They talk about freedom while the same police who are guarding the polling stations are the ones who kill protesters and arrest them every day.”