Egypt referendum firms up Sissi rule as regional unrest flares

Egyptians seek stability and see no alternative to current president, expert says

People walk past a banner supporting proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution with a picture of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, Egypt, on April 16, 2019. (AP/Amr Nabil)
People walk past a banner supporting proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution with a picture of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, Egypt, on April 16, 2019. (AP/Amr Nabil)

CAIRO, Egypt (AFP) — As mass protests rock other Arab countries, a snap referendum in Egypt has gone against the grain and cemented President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi’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 Sissi 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 Sissi 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.

An Egyptian man and woman search for names in a voter manifest during a referendum on constitutional amendments, at a school in Cairo’s northern neighborhood of Shubra on April 20, 2019. (AFP/Khaled Desouki)

“Undoubtedly some still support Sissi and believe that he has prevented Egypt from suffering the fate of neighbors,” 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 at the referendum, with a turnout rate of 44.3 percent, after it was called and held within a matter of days.

The amendments prolong Sissi’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 Sissi is given his full chance to finish what he started,” said Mervat Abdel Fattah, a housewife in her 50s.

After the result state television broadcast images of Sissi 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 Sissi’s thumping victory down to the fractured state of Egypt’s marginalized 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 Sissi to an easy win, said Ziad Aqel, political sociology expert at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Egyptian voters wait to vote at a polling station in a referendum on constitutional amendments, at a school in Saqiyat al-Manqadi village in the northern Nile delta province of Menoufia, on the first day of a three-day poll, on April 20, 2019. (AFP/Mohamed el-Shahed)

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

While people did take to the streets to celebrate, Aqel said their behavior 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 Sissi’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, Sissi led the military’s overthrow of elected president Morsi in 2013 following mass protests against the Islamist leader’s rule.

Sissi 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 criticized by human rights groups for the repression of political opponents, thousands of whom have been jailed.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi seen during a meeting with US President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on April 9, 2019. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Sissi’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 said 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 neighboring 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.

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