CAIRO — Egyptians overwhelmingly voted to extend President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi’s rule and expand his powers, deepening his hold over the Arab world’s most populous nation, according to results of a snap referendum announced Tuesday.
Critics and opposition groups quickly denounced the vote to change constitutional amendments as rigged.
For weeks now, a highly orchestrated campaign by Sissi’s loyalists in the government and private sector has been underway to ensure he could remain president until 2030, while giving him unprecedented powers over the judiciary and other lawmaking bodies. Authorities arrested opponents and blocked thousands of websites in an effort to stamp out an online campaign against proposed constitutional changes.
Unsurprisingly, the final vote count, arriving less than 24 hours after polling stations closed, showed that the amendments passed 88 percent to 11 percent, with a turnout of 44 percent. Only 62 million Egyptians in a country of more than 100 million were eligible to vote.
Sissi, 64, will now have more powers than his predecessors, and his increased influence stands in sharp contrast to populist rebellions in Algeria and Sudan in recent weeks that have ousted dictators. Instead, the passing of the amendments is the latest, and perhaps most devastating, sign yet that Egypt’s 2011 Arab Spring revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak has failed to bring the democratic reforms that many Egyptians hoped and fought to achieve.
Instead, critics fear that Sissi will now expand a crackdown on critics and opponents that has already seen tens of thousands jailed, independent media and activism silenced, and hundreds of websites deemed critical of Sissi blocked.
Sissi’s current term in office — he was reelected last year in an election that was also marred by arrests and intimidation of opponents — will now be extended by two more years, and he will be permitted to run again in 2024 for another six-year term. The amendments give him control over appointing judges and give the military, which Sissi once led and which remains Egypt’s most powerful body, more influence in politics.
In a statement on his official Twitter account, Sissi praised the turnout and the support for extending his rule, calling it a “tribute to the Egyptian people who impressed the world with their national consciousness of the challenges facing our dear Egypt.”
But opposition groups rejected the vote.
“We do not recognize this outcome, resulting from a sham referendum, and consider it completely null and void, both formally and substantively,” a group of leading Egyptian opposition figures, most of them in exile, said in a statement Tuesday.” We believe that Egypt is now experiencing a state of constitutional crisis, after the regime destroyed any kind of legitimacy.”
Critics said the snap vote, coming three days after lawmakers voted to send the amendments to a national referendum, gave little time to educate Egyptians about the measures or allow the opposition to prepare. The three days of voting, which ended Monday, were also marred by voting irregularities, including food parcels being handed out in exchange for votes.
Many Egyptians and Sissi critics on social media disputed the voter turnout of 44 percent.
“This 44% turnout figure is absurd,” Timothy Kaldas, an analyst at the Washington-based Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, tweeted. “For perspective, in the 1st round of the presidential election in 2012 when people understood options & believed their votes mattered turnout was 46%. In this vote many didn't understand amendments & had no faith their vote would impact.”
Sissi’s supporters said he was the best chance for political and economic stability, even as he has implemented austerity measures that have raised prices and lowered subsidies. Other voters said he has doing an effective job fighting terrorism, especially a virulent Islamic State branch in the country’s northern Sinai region.
“The president has planted a good plant, so now is time to be patient and wait for it to blossom,” said Mohamed Ahmed Bahgat, 69, a retired army colonel who owns a small bookshop. “We do not need a different man to come and start all over again or just sit and blame those before him. So this man has to continue.”
It was a rare to find anyone who voted against the changes. And those who did admitted that it was a futile task.
“The government has already decided, regardless of what I think,” said Yasser Muhammed, 49, a civil servant who said he voted “no.”