Egypt on high alert ahead of vote

An astounding 160,000 soldiers and 200,000 policemen were deployed across Egypt

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Egypt’s military and police forces have been put on high alert as the army-installed authorities prepare for a referendum on a new constitution, which is due to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The referendum has been billed as the first step in Egypt’s democratic transition after the military overthrew Mursi in July after protests against his one-year rule.

The referendum is also seen as a test of popularity for army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who led the ouster of Mursi.

On Saturday he called on the public to turn out “in strength” at the referendum this week.

The Muslim Brotherhood, their allies and the liberal April 6 Movement announced plans to boycott the referendum and have called for massive protests on Tuesday.

A dozen protested entered the iconic Tahrir Square on Monday, chanting slogans against the Army. A security official said the protesters were members of the Muslim Brotherhood and entered the square as individuals and then congregated inside.

The interior ministry has threatened to respond to protests with an iron using force “never seen before.”

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.

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, an Associated Press report said.

Covering preparations for the vote, Egyptian TV news channels have been airing images of top army commanders, including Gen. Sisi, 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 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, according to Associated Press.

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 Mohammad 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 Mursi 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, Mursi’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 Mursi’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.

[With AP and AFP]

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