Egyptians are voting in a referendum on amendments to the constitution that would allow the country’s president to remain in power until 2030, and would also give the army a political role.
Parliament approved the amendments on Tuesday, with 531 members supporting the changes and 22 voting against them.
Critics say the changes will entrench dictatorship, but supporters of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi say they are necessary to safeguard stability and allow the president to complete big projects he has started.
In a country with tightly controlled politics and media, there has been only limited public debate of the amendments, and opponents have not been able to campaign against them.
However the authorities have been keen to encourage a high turnout in the poll which is being held over three days. Even before parliament approved the final draft, posters and banners appeared on streets urging people to vote Yes and to “do what is right”.
Mr Sisi is serving his second term in office, but under the changes this would be extended from four to six years. A new article will allow him, as an exception, to serve a third term of six years.
Another amendment will enable him to select the heads of all judicial bodies and name the public prosecutor from a pool of candidates. Critics say it will effectively end the separation of powers and undermine the independence of the judiciary.
The amended constitution adds to the role of the army the tasks of defending democracy, the “civilian” nature of the state — code for non-Islamist — and the gains of the people. It means the military could constitutionally intervene in politics without being accused of mounting a coup or overstepping its role.
Other changes make it possible for Mr Sisi to appoint a vice-president, and bring back the upper chamber of parliament which was abolished in 2012. Women would make up no less than a quarter of the members of parliament, under new legislation.
A former military man, Mr Sisi was defence minister in 2013 when he led a popularly backed coup against Mohamed Morsi, an elected president from the Muslim Brotherhood group. He has presided over the harshest crackdown against dissent in Egypt’s modern history over the past six years, but supporters say he has brought stability.
Khaled Daoud, a leader of the opposition Dostour party, said the constitutional amendments did away with the last remaining gain of the 2011 revolution — the two-term limit under which a president has to step down after serving a maximum of eight years.
“The constitution says clearly that you cannot change the articles related to presidential terms, unless it is to provide more [democratic] guarantees, so they think we are foolish and we cannot read this very clear article,” he said. “Under Sisi we are seeing the restoration of the old authoritarian state.”
He complained that his party had not been able to advocate for a No vote because four of its activists have been under arrest since February 22 after a meeting to plan their campaign.
Mohamed Abu Hamed, a member of parliament who supported the changes said: A four-year term is not enough for a president to fulfil his campaign promises in a country with all the challenges we face.”
He said parliament held a hearing session for some 300 judges and they did not object to the proposed amendments affecting the judiciary. “They know best,” he said.
Mr Hamed defended the amendments as merely formalising the role the military has played “in response to the will of the people” when it pushed out Hosni Mubarak, the long-serving autocrat, during the 2011 uprising and when it overthrew the Islamist president in 2013 on the back of widespread protests against his rule.
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