At the start of the referendum in agypt, human rights activists and opposition members warned against new powers for authoritarian president abdel fattah al-sisi.
More than 60 million agyptians are called upon to vote in the three-day constitutional referendum by monday. Constitutional changes to be put to vote include allowing al-sisi to extend his term until 2030. The head of state was one of the first to cast his vote on saturday morning.
The planned constitutional changes undermine egypt’s "democratic course" and are not in the country’s interest, parliamentary deputy haitham al-hariri told the german press agency. "They seem to be tailored to a particular person," he said, without specifically mentioning al-sisi’s name.
Approval of the constitutional changes in the referendum is considered certain. Observers do not expect free vote. Al-hariri, however, does not expect high voter turnout. Many egyptians are not aware of the constitutional changes because the period between their introduction and the referendum was short.
Low voter turnout could be interpreted as rejection of the changes. Al-sisi’s supporters tried to get as many voters as possible to vote with incentives. Outside polling stations, posters were hung with al-sisi and the slogan "yes to the constitutional changes". In poorer neighborhoods, egyptians who could prove they had participated in the referendum received food packages containing sugar, rice, dried dates and noodles. Buses took people to the polling station free of charge.
Queues were initially seen outside some polling stations on saturday morning. "I support the changes so that al-sisi can complete his rough projects," 50-year-old elector shakir gabra told the german press agency in the cairo neighborhood of al-marg. A 38-year-old housewife, on the other hand, said she would not take part in the vote. "The constitutional amendments will go through anyway and al-sisi will stay in power."
Critics fear that his rule will become even more authoritarian with the planned constitutional changes. The term of office of the head of state actually expires in 2022. If the referendum is successful, it will be extended by two years. He can also be elected for another six-year term. Two years ago, al-sisi had ruled out such a step.
The head of state will also have greater influence over appointments to top judicial posts. The role of the already influential army is also strengthened. Critics warn future civilians could more easily end up in military courts. Al-sisi’s supporters, however, argue the changes should strengthen egypt’s stability. Among other things, they refer to the threat of terrorism.
Human rights watch criticized the vote for taking place while mass arrests and an unrelenting crackdown on basic rights continued. The constitutional changes undermined the dwindling independence of the judiciary and gave the military more power to interfere in politics. A free and fair election was impossible. Critics had already been put under a lot of pressure in the past weeks.
Egypt’s parliament, which is dominated by al-sisi supporters, did not give its blessing to the constitutional changes until tuesday. Al-hariri was among only 22 of nearly 600 deputies who voted against the motion. His speech triggered loud protests from other parliamentarians.
Al-sisi came to power in 2013, when the army under his leadership overthrew the freely elected president mohammed mursi after mass protests. In 2018, al-sisi, 64, was re-elected in a guided vote by about 97 percent.
Under al-sisi’s autocratic leadership, egypt is cracking down on critics. Tens of thousands in prison. Freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate are also severely restricted. Al-sisi’s prestigious projects include the construction of a new capital city east of cairo.