Egypt referendum firms up Sisi rule as regional unrest flares

Cairo: As mass protests rock other Arab countries, a snap referendum in Egypt has gone against the grain and cemented President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule for years to come.

The three-day ballot saw constitutional changes sail through that allow the former military chief to stay in power until 2030, boost his control over the judiciary and give the army even greater influence in political life.

Amid criticism that Sisi has silenced opposition and cracked down on freedoms, officials said more than 88 percent of ballots cast were for “yes”.

The government has “made sure Egyptians don’t see any credible alternative to Sisi so that they don’t start to imagine an Egypt that is ruled by anyone else,” said Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.

The vote in the Arab world’s most populous country came on the heels of uprisings that have forced veteran leaders in Algeria and Sudan to step down earlier this month.

And Kaldas said after years of turmoil that saw the ouster of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak and his Islamist successor Mohamed Morsi, stability remains a priority for many Egyptians.

“Undoubtedly some still support Sisi and believe that he has prevented Egypt from suffering the fate of neighbours,” he said.

“For most Egyptians, they believe they’ve overthrown two presidents and seen their quality of life get worse each time, so there’s little faith that a third uprising will improve the situation.”

Around 27 million votes were cast, with a turnout rate of 44.33 percent, at the referendum after it was called and held within a matter of days.

The amendments prolong Sisi’s current term to 2024 from 2022 and allow him to then run for another six-year term.

“The country is on the right track and it’s stable… it’s logical that Sisi is given his full chance to finish what he started,” said Mervat Abdel Fattah, a housewife in her fifties.

After the result state television broadcast images of Sisi supporters waving flags and blaring national tunes in Tahrir Square — the site of angry protests that toppled his two predecessors.

– No ‘unified’ opposition –
Analysts put Sisi’s thumping victory down to the fractured state of Egypt’s marginalised opposition and the use of state resources to back the changes.

The opposition’s lack of political power and the absence of “a unified stance on the referendum” helped Sisi to an easy win, said Ziad Aqel, political sociology expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Especially when coupled with “mobilisation” at the ballot box by state bodies, he added.

While people did take to the streets to celebrate, Aqel said their behaviour was “typical” of a political process controlled almost entirely by the state.

The New York-based Soufan Center said before the vote that the amendments helped “solidify Sisi’s grip” on Egyptian politics.

The absence of public opposition to the constitutional changes was “likely a result of the oppressive nature of the Egyptian government”, it said in a report published last week.

– Bucking the trend –
As army chief of staff at the time, Sisi led the military’s overthrow of elected president Morsi in 2013 following mass protests against the Islamist leader’s rule.

Sisi won his first term as president in 2014, three years after the uprising that toppled Mubarak, and was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent of the vote, after standing virtually unopposed.

His government has been widely criticised by human rights groups for the repression of political opponents, thousands of whom have been jailed.

Sisi’s security services rely on a policy of silencing dissidents on social networks, which played a key role in the overthrow of Mubarak.

Reporters Without Borders says there are 33 journalists in Egyptian jail — accusations authorities deny, saying they have no political prisoners.

Egypt’s referendum and its outcome have bucked the trend in neighbouring countries like Sudan, where protesters succeeded earlier this month in ousting Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of iron-fisted rule.

Now Sudanese protesters are demanding the military, which took power after helping to topple the veteran leader, hand over the reins to a civilian administration.

That came little more than a week after an uprising in Algeria forced long-time president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down.

Protesters there have since kept up their rallies, calling for a complete overhaul of the country’s political system.