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In North Sinai, militant threats cloud referendum vote

Sinai residents are preoccupied with security as they prepare to vote in the referendum on the constitution Jan. 14-15.
A view shows a damaged mosque after assaults on militant targets by the Egyptian Army, in a village on the outskirts of Sheikh Zuweid, near the city of El-Arish in Egypt's Sinai peninsula September 10, 2013. Egypt has tightened control of crossings from the Sinai peninsula and continued assaults on militants after an Islamist group based there said it tried to kill the interior minister in Cairo last week, the state news agency reported on Monday. REUTERS/Stringer  (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS RELIGION CIVIL UNR

SHEIKH ZUWAYYED, Egypt — During the Friday sermon, the imam of one of this conservative North Sinai town's mosques attacked the Egyptian regime and its call for the constitutional referendum. "They cracked down on everything resembling Islam including the Islamic charities and allowed the Christian ones to operate, and then they tell us it's not a war on Islam and call us to vote on their constitution."

The finger-wagging imam's message echoed through the mosque located a couple of miles away from the Zohur military barracks and less than a mile from the vast Sheikh Zuwayyed police compound. But every one of the town residents attending the sermon seemed to have already decided what their vote will be, if they participate.

Unlike the rest of Egypt, people in different parts of the volatile North Sinai province are evaluating their participation in the referendum — scheduled Jan. 14-15 — through militant threats and the level of security control that continue to fluctuate since the July 3 ouster of former President Mohammed Morsi.

"I am going to vote for the constitution, but other members of my family will vote against it, and some others will fear even walking past a polling station especially in Sheikh Zuwayyed and Rafah were most of the militants operate," said a North Sinai resident who met Al-Monitor in Sheikh Zuwayyed.

The man, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said he wouldn't publish his name "for the same reasons why some people wouldn't vote."

The Sinai Peninsula's most notorious militant organization, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, or the Partisans of Jerusalem, was the first to reply to interim President Adly Mansour's call for Egyptian to head to polling stations.

"Before speaking of some of the horrifying articles of the secular, Christian, Zionist constitution, we pledge to Allah the Great that [we] will make an example out of the leaders of the military and police, we will raid their houses and slaughter them like sheep," said the statement published on online jihadist forums on Dec. 19.

This threat by the Partisans of Jerusalem followed an earlier one by the Mujahedeen Shura Council that warned the residents of North Sinai from collaborating with the military and police forces. It threatened to target and kill collaborators.

Many people in the northeastern corner of the Sinai Peninsula believe that to the militant groups, voting for the constitution and collaborating with the military are equal. And the groups have already proven their capabilities and seriousness of their threats by several assassinations of community figures and tribesmen, where some of the victims were killed for only endorsing the military on social media websites.

Unconfirmed reports on Friday said that piles of printed flyers were left outside mosques across the border town of Rafah, warning people against participation in the referendum. Al-Monitor could not obtain a copy of the alleged flyer.

Concerns over possible militant attacks on polling stations during the two days of voting have already forced the Higher Electoral Committee to decrease the number of polling centers to 51 instead of the original 75 centers opened during the June 2012 presidential elections and the December 2012 constitutional referendum.

But what seems to be a setback for security was considered a successful plan by many residents who believe that attackers will not be able to reach the limited number of polling stations with heightened security.

"Opening only five polling centers in Sheikh Zuwayyed and Rafah will give the military and police more control and will significantly decrease the possibility of attacks," said Mostafa Singer, a prominent activist and writer from Sheikh Zuwayyed.

"Those threats will only have a strong effect on people in smaller villages where Islamist militants are more powerful and can identify people who participate in the referendum, which is a minimal number of voters in comparison to main cities and bigger towns," said Singer.

Singer's breakdown of North Sinai's voting patterns and the authorities' new measures clearly showed that the militant threat will not succeed in ruining the referendum across the province.

"The majority of voters are in the main cities, and I believe it's better to limit the number of polling center[s] and risk affecting the turnout than increasing the risk of an attack on a crowded polling station."

Up until late December 2013, Bir El-Abd and Rummana, the two major towns west of the province's capital El-Arish, were expected to be the main centers of the Muslim Brotherhood's fight against the constitution. But several conferences by the area's tribes endorsing the constitution and the military campaign proved the opposite.

The most recent was a massive conference held by the Dawaghra tribe in Bir El-Abd on Jan. 5, where the heads of the powerful tribe declared their support for the constitution and the military's efforts across the peninsula. The conference was attended by hundreds of tribesmen, several representatives of the military and local authorities.

But some of those who endorse the military efforts in fighting militants were highly concerned by Article 204, which allows for military trials for civilians.

"I will never accept a constitution that will legitimize what [former President] Hosni Mubarak did to oppress us for three decades," said Hassan al-Nakhlawy, a prominent Sinai activist and founder of the Sinai Prisoners Defense Front.

"This specific article is a deal breaker for me, our past and miserable experiences with exceptional prosecutors, military trials and arbitrary detentions will not allow me to vote for it, even though I endorse the military's fight against the militants."

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