Egypt squashes dissent ahead of referendum

Human Rights Watch, U.S. condemn arrests of activists campaigning for ‘no’ votes in upcoming constitutional vote

Egyptian army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi in November 2013.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

At least seven peaceful activists from the Strong Egypt party face criminal charges, apparently for hanging posters calling for “no” votes in the upcoming constitutional referendum, a rights groups said Monday.

The interrogation of the activists was focused on the posters and the men’s political views, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW), which added that the arrests come amid a pattern of repression of political dissent. The charges range from involvement in terrorism to attempting to over throw the regime, according to HRW.

“Egyptian citizens should be free to vote for or against the new constitution, not fear arrest for simply campaigning for a ‘no’ vote,” Joe Stork, Middle East and North Africa deputy director for HRW, said in a press release. “Protecting the right to vote requires safeguarding the right to free expression.”

Strong Egypt is a centrist party founded by Abd al Moneim Abu al Fotouh, who left the Muslim Brotherhood in 2011 because of ideological differences.

The rights group said Egypt’s streets are full of signs calling for “yes” votes but that “no” posters have been “virtually absent from the public square.”

The constitutional referendum will be held on Jan. 14 and 15. The vote will be the first since former President Mohamed Morsi’s ouster and will likely give a final push to a presidential bid by the man who deposed him, army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al Sisi.

Morsi’s recently outlawed Muslim Brotherhood has urged a boycott of the referendum rather than voting “no,” while many Egyptians who backed his overthrow are expected to vote “yes” in a show of support for the army-backed order that has replaced his rule.

The state has called on citizens to vote in numbers on Tuesday and Wednesday. The military hopes that a large turnout of “yes” votes will outstrip ballots won by the Muslim Brotherhood to give the new order an electoral seal of legitimacy, analysts say.

“Egypt is on the threshold of a decisive stage in its history, the results of which are awaited by the world,” Sisi said Saturday in public remarks that included the clearest indication to date that he will stand for election.

“If I run, then it must be at the request of the people and with a mandate from my army,” said the 59-year-old, who is depicted by his supporters as a savior who will restore stability to a country that has seen three years of turmoil.

Sisi deposed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected head of state, on July 3 after mass protests against Morsi’s rule. Sisi’s Islamist opponents see him as the mastermind of a coup that set off the worst internal strife in Egypt’s modern history.

The referendum is a key element of a transition plan the government unveiled in July with the aim of restoring democracy while launching a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, Egypt’s best-organized party until last year.

Driven underground and declared a terrorist group on Dec. 25, the Brotherhood has said it will not take part in the plan. A presidential vote is expected as early as April, once the referendum is approved, with parliamentary elections later.

“What will count is the percentage of Egyptians who go,” said Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University. “It will be very clear to the whole world whether this was a revolution against Morsi or a coup d’etat.”

The constitution will replace one signed into law by Morsi a little more than a year ago after it was approved in a referendum. The new text strips out controversial Islamist language while strengthening state institutions that opposed Morsi’s rule: the military, the police and the judiciary.

Its supporters include the ultraorthodox Islamist Nour Party, which backed Morsi’s removal, the official Islamic establishment of Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church.

The draft has won some praise for its stronger human-rights protections, even as authorities have cracked down on dissent with moves including a new law that tightly curbs protests, drawing criticism from Western governments.

The U.S. expressed concern last week after reports that three political activists had been arrested while campaigning for a “no” vote in the referendum, said Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke on Sunday with Sisi.

“They discussed the importance of the constitutional referendum for Egypt’s overall political transition, and Secretary Hagel stressed the importance of a transparent referendum in which all Egyptians have the opportunity to cast their vote freely,” Kirby said in a statement. Hagel also urged Sisi to ensure access for electoral observers.

Al Jazeera and Reuters

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