CAIRO – Egyptians are being asked to vote this week on a vision of their nation's future sponsored by the powerful military, a two-day election widely seen as a referendum on a likely presidential run by the country's top general — but held in a climate of fear and intimidation.
An astounding 160,000 soldiers and 200,000 policemen were expected to deploy across Egypt on Tuesday and Wednesday to guard polling stations and voters following months of violence that authorities have blamed on Islamic militants. Supporters of Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president ousted in a coup last summer, have said they would stage massive demonstrations and boycott the vote on a new constitution.
In many ways, Egypt looks more like a country going to war rather than one preparing for what is supposedly a transition to democratic rule. The government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as the key to the nation's security and stability over which there can be no dissent.
Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards exhort Egyptians to vote "yes." Posters urging a 'no' vote have led to arrests.
"There appears to be a conviction among security officers that there should be zero accommodation for anyone who wants a 'no' vote," said Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.
Authorities have threatened legal proceedings against the owners of cyber cafes, presses and stationery stores if they allow use of their facilities for the production of 'no' fliers or posters, according to security officials. They said police commanders have instructed officers to arrest anyone distributing leaflets or hanging banners against the draft charter. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in exchange for discussing security operations.
"We are trying to mobilize the 'yes' vote. Anyone doing the opposite is a traitor and an American agent," said Mohammed Hamdy, a politician and local dignitary from the city of Assiut, an Islamist stronghold with a large Christian community south of Cairo.
In Washington, U.S. State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said Monday: "We're deeply concerned by reports of ongoing arrests for campaigning for a 'no' vote on the constitutional referendum. We are also deeply troubled by reports that at least one individual was beaten during his arrest."
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the 2011 ouster of longtime authoritarian ruler Hosni Mubarak, with the five others possibly the freest ever seen in Egypt. While unlikely to be stained by fraud, this week's vote is taking place at a time when many of the freedoms won in the uprising that toppled Mubarak have vanished in the months since Morsi was removed after just one year in office.
The government has detained thousands of Brotherhood members including Morsi and most of the group's leaders. Recently, the notorious domestic security agency set up hotlines for citizens to report members of the Brotherhood, which the government has declared a terrorist group. For their part, Morsi's supporters have been waging near daily protests since the popularly backed July 3 coup that ousted him.
The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. But it also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals.
The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.
The current government is looking for a bigger "yes" majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for the military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to run for president this year. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation's highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.
Covering preparations for the vote, Egyptian TV news channels have been airing images of top army commanders, including el-Sissi, inspecting thousands of troops lined up in full combat gear. Convoys of military armored personnel carriers and fighting vehicles are shown plying city streets en route to their deployment positions.
The resolve of the Egyptian government to do everything it can to bring out the voters and get a comfortable "yes" majority comes in the wake of a series of attacks attributed to Muslim extremists. In the six months since Morsi's ouster, there has been an assassination attempt on the interior minister as well as deadly attacks on key security officers, soldiers, policemen and provincial security and military intelligence headquarters.
Morsi's supporters have labeled the draft charter a "constitution of blood." In response, the government has put them on notice that it would deal harshly with anyone interfering with the referendum.
"The resolve of the police will not falter until we realize the will of the sons of Egypt," Interior Minister Mohammed Ibrahim said on Monday. "Maximum force and firmness will be used to deal with any attempt to spoil this feast. We will not show leniency toward any action that touches the will of the Egyptian people."
Associated Press writer Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.