Middle East

Egypt referendum: Voters urged to back extended Sisi term

A man walks in front of a banner reading, "Yes to the constitutional amendments, for a better future", with a photo of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the approaching referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo, Egypt on 16 April 2019. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Banner in central Cairo urging Egyptians to "say yes to the constitutional amendments"

Walking across Cairo, you can't miss the huge banners calling on Egyptians to support constitutional amendments that would keep President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in power until 2030.

Egyptians began voting on Saturday in a three-day referendum on the proposed changes, a few days after they were approved by a sweeping majority inside parliament.

"Say yes to stability and security," reads one banner in central Cairo. The new amendments will extend the presidential term from four to six years, and the president can only be re-elected once.

But Mr Sisi is being given special treatment.

Not only will his current term be extended to six years, but he will be allowed to run for a third term as an exception.

The military-backed president, who took office in 2014, was originally meant to leave in 2022 after his second term expires.

"We are rebuilding through these so-called amendments the state of the single ruler," says Khaled Dawood, a liberal opposition figure. He believes Egypt will go back to "square one, the same autocratic rule it experienced before the 2011 revolution".

The changes will give President Sisi tight control over the judiciary, with powers to appoint the prosecutor general and all high level judges.

"This ends the hopes of millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in January 2011, wishing to have a rotation of power and a president who can be held accountable," Mr Khaled adds.

Growing apathy?

Mr Sisi has not issued any statements regarding the amendments or the referendum.

The speaker of the parliament has made it clear the proposals have been put forward by the majority bloc. But the parliament is full of the president's loyalists, and it has been repeatedly criticised for being a rubber stamp.

The president's supporters argue he should remain in power to carry on with his economic reforms.

MP Mohamed Abu Hamed believes it's the people who have the final say.

He says the amendments will not annul any future elections, adding: "If President Sisi decides to run again, he might be challenged by another candidate who is more appealing to voters."

Image copyright EPA
Image caption Egypt's parliament, packed with Sisi supporters, approved the constitutional changes last week

Following the 2011 revolution, Egyptians were politically very active.

They queued for hours in front of the polling stations in the first presidential elections staged a year after the revolution. These elections brought Mohamed Morsi to power, the country's first civilian president.

A year later, he was overthrown by Mr Sisi, the defence minister at the time, following mass protests.

Many Egyptians, today, seem to have lost a lot of their enthusiasm.

"What kind of a difference would my vote make? Whether or not I take part in the referendum, these amendments will pass," a young man, who preferred to remain anonymous, tells me.

Other priorities

Some people are concerned about their livelihoods, more than anything else.

"I haven't heard much about these changes, but I am certain they are made for the powerful not the people," says a middle aged lady, who also did not want to be identified.

She has decided not to vote because "everything is going wrong. Prices are high and our living conditions are dire".

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Rights groups have questioned the haste at which the vote was organised - in just a few days

For a considerable number of voters, stability remains an important priority.

"Look at what's happening in the region. At least we feel safe here," Mohamed, a man in his 50s tell me. He believes the president is investing in infrastructure by building "new bridges, tunnels and roads".

"If he leaves no-one can continue what he started," he adds.

The Sisi government takes pride in bringing back a long-missed stability.

Tourism, for example, a lifeline for the economy, has benefited from the stable status quo. Official statistics show that visitors are coming back and growth rates in this vital sector are on the rise.

Militarising the state?

The amendments will boost female parliamentary representation, allocating a quota of 25 per cent of seats to women. They will also introduce a second chamber to parliament, in addition to appointing one or more deputies to the president.

One significant change is related to adding extra powers to the army.

For decades, the military institution has been a key player in Egyptian politics, and economy. Now it has been appointed as "the guardian of the constitution and civil state".

Critics say this will open the doors wide for militarising the Egyptian state.

But MP Abu Hamed says the army had sided with the people to unseat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and to oust Mr Morsi in 2013.

He believes this change is "not inventing a new reality, it is just legitimising it. The army always acts upon people's wishes".

Opposition cyber campaign 'stifled'

Opponents say the authorities are leaving them no room to hold any public campaign against the amendments. "Members of our parties are arrested, and we are banned from all local media," Khaled Dawood says.

Meanwhile, Netblock - an NGO that monitors cyber security - says internet providers in Egypt are blocking access to an estimated 34,000 internet domains "in an apparent bid to stamp out an opposition campaign under the slogan Void".

The monitoring group says the campaign's website was blocked after it had reportedly gathered 60,000 signatures in a few hours.

Hundreds of news websites, which the authorities accuse of supporting terrorism, have been already blocked in Egypt over the past year.

"There is no press, no media, nothing but the government voice," says Mokhtar Mounir, a human rights lawyer, who paints a very grim picture of Mr Sisi's rule.

"We have a huge number of political prisoners, people dying of medical neglect behind bars, and women sent to prison for trivial charges," he adds.

The president has repeatedly said there are no prisoners of conscience in Egypt, insisting on the independence of the judiciary.

For now, things are apparently calm and it's up to the Egyptian voters to decide.

But the concern is if President Sisi tightens his grip on power further, public anger could erupt as it did less than a decade ago.

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