The Middle East Channel

Egyptians Vote in Key Constitution Referendum Amid Tensions

Egyptians have begun going to the polls in a two-day referendum on a new constitution backed by the military-led government. The draft is expected to pass easily, with no campaigning against the constitution. However, opposition activists say they have not been free to campaign against it, and the Muslim Brotherhood has planned to boycott the process. The new constitution would replace the charter drafted under Mohamed Morsi, but is not radically different. The new text removed disputed Islamist language and would strengthen state institutions including the military, police, and judiciary. It also includes some increased protections for women's rights and religious freedom. The military-backed government is pushing for a yes vote, as an endorsement of the July 3, 2013 ouster of Morsi that could pave the way for army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidential bid and elections as early as April. The polling is taking place amid high security with about 160,000 soldiers and over 200,000 police officers deployed across the country. However, an explosion struck near a court building in Cairo's Imbaba district, causing no injuries. Additionally, a Muslim Brotherhood supporter was killed in clashes between the Brotherhood and security forces at a protest in Beni Suef, about 70 miles south of Cairo. Another pro-Morsi supporter reportedly died from wounds sustained in clashes in Giza.

Syria

NGOs have pledged $400 million in humanitarian assistance for Syria ahead of an international donor conference to begin Wednesday in Kuwait. The conference aims to help the United Nations raise $6.5 billion for assistance for Syria and neighboring countries hosting refugees from the conflict that is now approaching its third year. The U.N.'s World Food Programme (WFP) delivered rations to a record 3.8 billion people in December, however it remains concerned about people living in eastern provinces and besieged areas who remain out of reach. On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Syria is prepared to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid to some areas under siege, including East Ghouta, where residents have been cut off for nearly a year. Meanwhile, an official from the opposition Syrian National Coalition said the United States and Britain have warned they may reconsider support for the group if it fails to participate in a peace conference slated to begin on January 22 in Switzerland.

Headlines

  • Turkish police raided the offices of an Islamic charity, the Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), accused of trying to ship arms to Syria, in part of an operation in six cities against al Qaeda suspects.
  • A series of car bombings in Baghdad killed an estimated 26 people as U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon met in the capital with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urging leaders to address the "root causes" of violence.
  • The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) announced that a meeting with Iran on its nuclear program set for next week has been postponed to February 8.
  • Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon reportedly called U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts obsessive and "messianic."

Arguments and Analysis

'Hey General, It's Me, Chuck. Again.' (Shadi Hamid, Politico Magazine)

"Since the July 3 military coup in Egypt, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has spoken to General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi -- the country's charismatic strongman -- more than 25 times. The two men reportedly first bonded somewhat over a two-hour lunch in April. Apparently, Sissi liked Hagel's 'bluntness.' Their relationship, forged during one of the worst spells of violence in Egypt's modern history, provides an interesting, if unsettling, window into the strategic drift of U.S. policy in Egypt as well as the broader region.

Since that first lunch, Hagel and Sissi have spoken often. Out of the 30 or so total calls, the U.S. government has provided 15 official readouts over six months, each with a similar set of messages to Sissi: Try to be less repressive and more inclusive. Egypt is the only country where Hagel has a regular, direct line of communication not just with the minister of defense but also the (effective) head of state, since Sissi happens to be both. With each passing month, the readouts become more surreal, with Hagel asking what has become one of the region's more brutal, repressive regimes to be 'democratic.' Although there are certainly competitors -- Syria and Israel-Palestine come to mind -- it is difficult to think of another case where U.S. policy is so completely divorced from realities on the ground."

'Egypt's Quest for Itself' (Peter Harling and Yasser El Shimy, Orient XXI)

"Egypt's fear of generalized conflict or collective collapse appears to prompt a collective purging instinct, in which society consolidates around the need to rid itself of one of its components, perceived as threatening to the whole. Typically, this category is first re-categorized as foreign. The Brotherhood set themselves up to being treated as such, not least by encouraging jihad in Syria -- a provocative break with a more cautious and mature foreign policy for the pure sake of rallying an Islamist base. But there is a pattern here that runs deeper, albeit on different scales.

Before protests gained decisive momentum in the early days of the 2011 uprising, many Egyptians saw demonstrators as paid agents provocateurs that deserved no better than to be crushed. This sentiment has returned at various stages of the transition. Coptic Christians suddenly faced frantic government and communal violence as they marched past the Maspero state television building in October 2011. Sudden spikes of xenophobia -- against Westerners, Palestinians or Syrian refugees accused of the most outrageous plots against the country's integrity -- fit into the same pattern. Egyptians compulsively seek a scapegoat to blame for the country's ill fortunes. Most media outlets, both state-controlled and privately owned, whip up campaigns of intolerance that the public largely buys into, finding comfort in groupthink."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

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