CAIRO – With a presidential run by Egypt's powerful military chief seeming more likely by the day, this week's constitution referendum, to be held amid a massive security force deployment, is widely seen as a vote of confidence in the regime he installed last summer.
The charter is an overhaul of an Islamist-backed constitution adopted in December 2012 during the rule of Mohammed Morsi, the ousted president, and his Muslim Brotherhood. Drafted by a 50-member panel of mostly secular-leaning politicians, it criminalizes discrimination, enshrines gender equality and guarantees a raft of freedoms and rights.
And crucially, the Jan. 14-15 vote provides the country's increasingly popular military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, with a first electoral test since he ousted Morsi in a military coup on July 3. A comfortable "yes" vote and a respectable turnout would be seen as bestowing legitimacy, while undermining the Islamists' argument that Morsi remains the nation's elected president.
"It is not just a referendum on the constitution. It is on many things, including el-Sissi and the fight against violence by militants," said analyst and columnist Makram Mohammed Ahmed, who is close to the military. "I cannot imagine that a big 'yes' majority will automatically usher in a new legitimacy that will be swiftly recognized by the West, but it is a good constitution that must be given its due."
With the stakes so high, authorities are undertaking a massive security operation to protect polling stations and voters. The deployment involves 160,000 soldiers, including elite paratroopers and commandos backed by armored vehicles and helicopters, according to military and security officials.
An even larger number of police — over 200,000 officers — will also participate. Fearing militant attacks, troops are being stationed at airports around the country to be flown to sites of possible attacks at short notice. And military aircraft will be used to monitor rarely used desert routes to major cities, a tactic designed to stop the infiltration of militants, said the officials, who agreed to discuss the details of the operation only on condition of anonymity.
Snipers will be deployed at secret locations close to polling stations, they said. Provinces that witness major outbreaks of violence will be sealed off from the rest of the country while the police and army move to contain it.
The charter adopted under Morsi won some 64 percent of the vote on a low turnout of about 30 percent — partly caused by the then-opposition calling for a boycott of the vote.
This week, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers who are urging a boycott.
Their argument is that the entire process, beginning with the coup, is illegitimate, and they are planning mass demonstrations on voting days. The group has honed its mobilization tactics in the 85 years since its inception, winning more than 40 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections held in late 2011 and early 2012.
Still, it's difficult to predict how effective the boycott will be given that most of the Brotherhood's top and midlevel leaders are either in jail or on the run. The government's recent move to label the group a terrorist organization has in effect meant that mere membership can bring a lengthy jail sentence.
"The arrests have left entire provinces without a local leadership to organize and execute," said a Brotherhood activist in southern Egypt, a stronghold of Islamists, who asked to be identified only by his first name, Mohammed, because he feared arrest. "We are heavily relying on sympathetic students, sisters and workers to lobby for a 'no' vote."
To help ensure strong turnout, wealthy businessmen have been asked by local officials to fund the transport of poor voters to polling stations. The government has also decreed that voters can cast their ballots wherever they happen to be on Tuesday and Wednesday, rather than at polling centers in the districts where they are registered.
While sure to boost turnout, the move also raises the specter of fraud. The government says anyone caught voting more than once will be swiftly put on trial and that a conviction will mean a jail sentence.
Since Morsi's removal, el-Sissi has remained silent on whether he would run for president, though he told a newspaper interviewer late last year he could not rule it out.
On Saturday, he moved closer to announcing his candidacy.
Addressing a crowd of military officers, police commanders, politicians, artists and writers, el-Sissi said he would run if he received a popular mandate to do so. "I cannot turn my back on Egypt," he said.
Close aides have said that el-Sissi would view a big "yes" majority of some 70 percent and a respectable turnout as a popular mandate for him to run.
The vote will also show how much influence supporters of ousted autocrat Hosni Mubarak retain after throwing their weight behind Morsi's removal and the roadmap announced by el-Sissi in July, which includes presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.
It will also test whether the ultraconservative Islamic Al-Nour party, the military-backed regime's unlikely ally, can succeed in rallying its skeptical supporters to a "yes" vote.
The referendum is Egypt's sixth nationwide vote since Mubarak's ouster nearly three years ago in a popular uprising triggered by deeply rooted grievances over suppression of freedoms, police brutality, and social and economic injustice. The five previous votes were probably the freest in Egypt's history, though they were held amid a growing sense of polarization.
By contrast, this week's vote will be held in a climate that, in many ways, is a throwback to Mubarak's days.
Many of the freedoms won by the 2011 uprising have been rolled back since the military coup, the brutal police tactics of Mubarak's 29-year rule are making a comeback and a climate of intolerance for dissent is growing. Liberal youth leaders have been thrown in jail and a new law places draconian conditions on allowing street protests.
A massive crackdown against Morsi's Brotherhood continues, with thousands of mostly Brotherhood members thought to be in detention. They include Morsi and almost every top Brotherhood leader. The former president faces three separate trials that carry the death penalty.
Meanwhile, police have detained volunteers plastering fliers urging Egyptians to vote "no," and the media, both state-owned and private, is firmly in the "yes" camp, continuously airing pro-"yes" propaganda, along with patriotic songs and promotional films. Thousands of giant billboards and fliers have appeared across the country, all exhorting a "yes" vote. And portraits of el-Sissi, wearing his trademark black sunglasses, are popping up in growing numbers.
Authorities have vowed to crush any attempt to disrupt the vote and in rural areas, weeks of negotiations between local officials and powerful families have won pledges by the families to stand up to any attempt by Islamists to interfere with the voting.
In an indication of the brittle nature of the Brotherhood boycott, some activists said they would be lobbying for a "no" vote while stepping up street protests starting Tuesday. One female activist who agreed to be identified only by her first name, Fatma, said she and her fellow "sisters" would target the families of detained Brotherhood members or victims of violence.
"We will ask them to vote 'no' to the police state, to the random arrests, the spoiling of Egypt and to secularism," she said.
Other Brotherhood activists said there were plans for pro-Morsi students to form human chains across much of Egypt to publicize their "no" message.
Meanwhile, a journalist known to be close to el-Sissi suggested in an article published Sunday in the al-Akhbar newspaper that the general's decision to run would not depend entirely on the outcome of the vote.
"In my view, neither the turnout nor the 'yes' percentage expresses the people's views on el-Sissi. They are just indicators that are taken into consideration," said Yasser Rizk, chairman of the state-owned Akhbar al-Youm company that publishes several newspapers. "Large segments of the population may reject the constitution, while at the same time realizing that el-Sissi is more capable (than anyone else) to run the country under the present circumstances."
For his part, the 59-year-old general has urged Egyptians to vote to "chart the future of our nation and to let the world know its standing and prestige among the nations."
Adly Mansour, the interim president, also exhorted Egyptians to come out and vote when he addressed the nation on Sunday.
Egyptians, he said, must vote "to lead the ship of the nation to the shores of safety."