Just over a year ago, Egyptians living abroad voted in a referendum on a new constitution put forward by an elected Muslim Brotherhood-led government, which was ousted by the army last July following a period of violent unrest.
Starting on January 8, thousands of people are expected to visit Egyptian embassies worldwide to cast ballots on another draft constitution. This one is supported by Egypt’s military-backed interim government, which – by banning Islamist parties and scrapping parts of the former government’s legislation – reflects the shift in power in Egypt. Expatriates will be able to vote until January 12, ahead of the referendum at home which is slated for January 14-15.
“It’s essential that everyone votes in this referendum, whatever their vote may be,” said Sabry Fahmy, an Egyptian who lives in Doha, Qatar. “Whether it’s in favour of or against the constitution, your vote must be made. For us abroad, taking part in these polls has been one of our main gains from this saga.”
Yet only 681,346 Egyptian expatriates have registered to vote on the elections committee’s website. “Not all Egyptians abroad are closely tied to the country, and it takes dedication and commitment for them to go out of their way and participate,” said Shadi Hamid, the director of research for the Brookings Doha Centre.
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The constitution, which will pave the way for presidential and legislative elections later in the year, is part of the political roadmap announced on July 3 by army chief Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, who led the toppling of the country’s first freely elected President Mohamed Morsi.
Forging ahead with the roadmap has not, however, restored a sense of normality to the streets of Egypt’s cities. The political turbulence that has crippled Egypt since the 2011 revolt ending Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule has worsened in recent months.
More than 1,000 people, mostly supporters of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood, have died in a months-long violent crackdown. The group was declared a terrorist organsation by the interim government on December 25, a move widely seen to be a precursor for an even more intense clampdown on the country’s oldest political group.
Hundreds of Egyptian soldiers and policemen have also fallen victim to attacks by armed Islamists in the Sinai Peninsula, who have recently become active in cities in the Nile Delta as well.
Though many Egyptians living abroad don’t have to live with such unrest, they often share the same sense of depression and loss that their families feel at home. Heba Mahmoud, a 29-year-old pharmacist living in Kuwait, said she won’t participate in the vote. “It’s pointless. I joined in the 2012 constitution hoping the country will move forward, but it didn’t. And it won’t.”
But her husband, Ahmed Adel, a 33-year-old engineer, said he will endorse the charter. “It’s definitely better than the 2012 constitution. It clearly separates between the government and the army,” he said. Adel added that he will also participate in the referendum to make sure “that the Brotherhood’s fingerprints on the country are erased”.
Those calling for a yes vote for stability will most likely succeed in passing the new constitution with the promise of 'restoring law and order'.
The military-backed government has gone to great lengths to stamp out the Islamist group, which rose to power after the 2011 uprising and has won every vote since then. Amending the 2012 constitution, which many saw as favouring a strict interpretation of Islam at the expense of civil rights, was part of that process.
The Islamist-backed constitution still received a nod from 64 percent of voters, but only one-third of the 51 million eligible constituents bothered to cast a ballot. Many believe low turnout was evidence that the proposed constitution failed to achieve a public consensus.
The proposed new charter faces similar problems. The Anti-Coup Alliance, a group including many Brotherhood supporters and other religious conservatives, plans to boycott the polls. Many secular and liberal movements are also uncomfortable with the proposed document, rejecting articles enabling civilians to be tried in military courts.
“Those calling for a yes vote for stability will most likely succeed in passing the new constitution with the promise of ‘restoring law and order’, which is badly needed for the recovery of the wrecked national economy,” Haizam Amirah-Fernandez, a senior analyst at the Madrid-based think tank Elcano Royal Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Ongoing violence has also weighed on Egypt’s economy, scaring away foreign tourists and investors and causing the country’s foreign currency reserves to plunge.
Egyptians abroad, however, continue to send home large quantities of money, with remittances into the country reaching $20bn in 2013, making Egypt among the world’s top five recipients of expatriate transfers..
Despite Egypt’s dependence on remittances from citizens living abroad, a recent decree by the Supreme Election Committee could decrease the Egyptian diaspora’s say on the new constitution. The decision prevents voting by mail, which many Egyptians abroad had done since 2011, the first time they were allowed to vote from out of the country.
“The government has not been focusing on those living outside as much, possibly because they’re mostly Morsi sympathisers,” Hamid said. Of the 312,317 registered Egyptian voters living in Saudi Arabia, 82 percent voted in favour of the 2012 draft constitution favoured by the Brotherhood.
As the vote approaches, billboards throughout Cairo urge people to say “yes”, and campaigns on media outlets both state-owned and private extol the charter’s benefits.
Bassem, an IT developer residing in London who didn’t want his last name published, said he will not participate in the referendum because he suspects voters will be steered into approving the constitution. “It doesn’t really matter what my vote will be. They will make sure that the final word is not a ‘no’,” he told Al Jazeera.
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The worsening security situation in Egypt may lead many expatriates hoping for stability to vote in support of the constitution. Since July 3, both Islamist and liberal opposition activists have been placed behind bars, and expressions of dissent have often been met with force. The government has issued a law banning unauthorised protests, which has been used to prosecute prominent liberal activists Ahmed Maher, Alaa Abdel Fattah and Mohamed Adel, who played a key role in Mubarak’s ouster, who potentially face years in prison.
Amid heightened fears of unrest and attacks – which the government has blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood – Egypt’s Ministry of Interior recently created hotline numbers for citizens to call to report anyone suspected of links to the Brotherhood. Days later, the public prosecutor looked into a complaint that an online advertisement starring a puppet was allegedly sending coded messages of an upcoming attack by the Islamist group.
“Many will just find it safer to go and say ‘yes’,” Hamid claimed.
Widespread support for the military is also likely to translate to “yes” votes for the constitution. According to the latest poll by Zogby Research Services, the military remains the institution in which Egyptians have the greatest confidence. The military registered a 70 percent approval rating in a September survey – down from 93 percent in July. “Egypt’s autocratic regime is not an unpopular one. Many passionately support el-Sisi, and hate the Brotherhood with passion,” Hamid said.
Expressing such a stand is Mohamed Nageeb, a medical expert living in the United Arab Emirates, who will vote in favour of the constitution. Hoping that the next parliament will end the practice of trying civilians in military tribunals, Nageeb said the passing of the new constitution would send a “strong message to the world and the Muslim Brotherhood that millions are behind the corrective measures by the new management”.
Ramy Gohary, a professor at Canada’s Carleton University and a member Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority, said he too will support the charter. “I have a few reservations against it, but I believe it is a step forward nevertheless.”
But, he said, ratifying the constitution is just a step towards stability, and if it passes there will still be a lot of work to do. “Foremost is the reconciliation within the Egyptian home,” he said.
“In the absence of a minimal consensus, social stability and politically inclusive processes,” said Amirah-Fernandez, the analyst, “it is hard to imagine how the current – or future – Egyptian authorities will be able to deliver. Ungovernability may turn into a serious risk for the future of Egypt.”
Follow Dahlia Kholaif on Twitter: @Dee_Kholaif