Voting begins in Egypt’s constitutional referendum

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Voting began on Saturday in Egypt in a referendum on proposed constitutional amendments that would extend President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi's rule.

Sisi cast his ballot at a polling station in the eastern suburb of Heliopolis in the Egyptian capital, state television showed.

In a referendum, Egyptians are to start voting on Saturday on constitutional amendments that extend President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s rule until at least 2024.

The vote running from April 20-22 was officially announced on Wednesday, a day after parliament overwhelmingly approved the changes extending presidential terms from four to six years.

The amendments — widely expected to pass in the face of minimal opposition — would prolong Sisi’s current term to 2024 from 2022 and allow him to then run for another six-year term.

They also include giving the military greater influence in political life, granting Sisi wide control over the judiciary and broadening the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.

Egypt has been preparing for the referendum at the same time as parliament debated the amendments since the start of April.

Banners and billboards have gone up across the capital Cairo in the past weeks urging people to take part.

Many carry slogans implicitly urging people to back the amendments by doing “the right thing”, while others sponsored by the pro-government Nation’s Future party call outright for a “Yes” vote.

The referendum comes after two veteran presidents, Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Omar Al Bashir, were ousted in Algeria and Sudan, respectively, this month following mass street demonstrations. MP Mohamed Abu-Hamed, who pushed for the constitutional amendments to keep Sisi in power, is adamant the changes are needed to allow the president to complete political and economic reforms.

Sisi “took important political, economic and security measures... (and) must continue with his reforms”, in the face of the unrest gripping neighbouring countries, the deputy told AFP.

The Soufan Center, however, said on Thursday that the amendments would “solidify Sisi’s grip on the Egyptian political regime”.

Egypt’s state news agency says expats have started voting on constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi to stay in power until 2030.

Mena reported that Egyptians living abroad lined up outside their country’s diplomatic missions to vote on Friday, a day before the referendum starts in Egypt. The voting is to last three days, to maximise turnout.

An amendment to Article 140 of the constitution extends the presidential term to six years from four. An outright bar on any president serving more than two terms will change to a bar on serving more than two consecutive terms. An additional clause extends Sisi’s current term to six years from four currently since his election victory in 2018, and allows him to run for a third term in 2024.

The amendments provide for the creation of a second parliamentary chamber known as the Council of Senators. It would have 180 members, two-thirds elected by the public and the rest appointed by the president. Article 200 of the constitution on the role of the military is expanded, giving the military a duty to protect “the constitution and democracy and the fundamental make-up of the country and its civil nature, the gains of the people and the rights and freedoms of individuals”. The amendments also create the post of vice president, allowing the president to appoint one or more deputies. They task the president with choosing head judges and the public prosecutor from a pool of senior candidates pre-selected by the judiciary. They further create a quota setting women’s representation in parliament at a minimum of 25 per cent.

The amendments were initiated by the pro-government parliamentary bloc known as Support Egypt, and according to the parliament’s legislative committee report, 155 members submitted the initial proposal. On Tuesday, 531 out of 596 members of Egypt’s overwhelmingly pro-Sisi parliament voted in favour of the changes. Parliament speaker Ali Abdelaal has said that the amendments were a parliamentary initiative and that Sisi may not even choose to run again. “This suggestion came from the representatives of the people in gratitude for the historic role played by the president,” the legislative committee report said.

The legislative committee acknowledged some opposition to the amendments from members of the judiciary and two non-governmental organisations.

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