(This article was written for the European Council on Foreign Relations and appeared on its website)
Egypt’s government is ratcheting up pressure to the maximum to persuade Egyptians to take part in the referendum on the post-coup constitution and to vote yes. The stakes for the regime are high as the referendum has come to be seen as a test of the viability of the order established by the armed forces after they removed the elected Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi last July. As commentator Wahid Abdel-Meguid said at an Egyptian Organization of Human Rights conference on the constitution this week, “a 70 percent ‘yes’ vote among a 60 percent turnout is better than 90 percent approval from a 30 percent turnout”.
Opponents of the new order, from Brotherhood protesters to jihadi groups, are expected to disrupt the vote by various means from civil disobedience to violence, but whether the worst of these expectations come to pass or not, the psychology of this conflict is such that the regime has an interest in playing up such expectations, and perhaps in the process helping them to come to pass. No effort is being spared in the fight to crush the “Other” determined to ruin Egypt’s future. Demonization of the Brotherhood has reached ridiculous proportions, where TV commentators subject ministers in the Morsi government to inquisition over why they served the cult, and politicians and writers are too scared to meet foreign journalists or analysts. Last week the government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization – following an attack, apparently by a suicide bomber, on an Interior Ministry building in Mansoura – and then began efforts at the Arab League to force Arab states to take action against the group.
In addition to that, the government has announced: freezing the finances of over 1,000 charity organizations accused of links to the Brotherhood, assuming financial administration of 87 schools seen as Brotherhood-owned or infiltrated, extending control over all mosques and the content of their Friday sermons, and an indictment against the imprisoned Mursi of collaborating with Hizbullah, Hamas, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Just taking part in protests can get you up to five years in prison, journalists are fearful that speaking to Brotherhood members could now be construed as criminalized sympathy for the group, and there is serious speculation that Mursi and other senior figures in jail could ultimately face execution. State media and even more pro-state independent media (linked to intelligence) are publishing numbers for the public to denounce suspected Brotherhood members and sympathizers.
Not all of these measures are possible and not all of these claims are believable. Government efforts to limit, eliminate and coopt the organization stretch back decades. But the incessant stream of announcements serves to tap into nationalist sentiment in the all-consuming drive to get Egyptians to vote. Defence minister and coup mastermind Abdelfattah al-Sisi made an appearance on state TV last week, shown in clips telling army graduates that Egyptians must “put their trust in God, the army and the civilian police to take Egypt to freedom, stability and progress,” and adding: “The Egyptian army will sacrifice itself for Egypt and Egyptians, and those who harm you will vanish from the face of the Earth.” Sisi has significantly reduced his public profile in recent months. That serves to establish the normality of the interim government before Egyptians and the world, but also strengthens the aura of salvationary power around the man. Sources close to him were quoted in media this week saying he would not be giving any television interviews in January, after speculation mounted that he would appear on a local channel.
The issue here is that the regime is not only preparing the path for the constitution’s approval – the scene is being set for Sisi himself to step up as presidential candidate. If he is to make that fateful move, it will only happen once a successful vote has been achieved.