Amendments on the ballot will extend President Abdel Fattah el Sisi rule to 2030 and, critics worry, will return Egypt to an authoritarian model. His supporters say the changes are necessary to give him time to complete economic reforms.

An Egyptian woman casts her ballot in a box while voting 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. April 20, 2019.
An Egyptian woman casts her ballot in a box while voting 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. April 20, 2019. (AFP)

Egyptians voted on Saturday in a three-day referendum on constitutional changes that could allow President Abdel Fattah al Sisi to stay in office until 2030 and boost the role of the powerful military.

Sisi's supporters say the changes are necessary to give him more time to complete major development projects and economic reforms. 

Critics say they concentrate more powers in Sisi's hands and return Egypt to an unequivocally authoritarian model.

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

Egypt's 596-member parliament, dominated by Sisi's supporters, approved the amendments on Tuesday, voting by 531 to 22 in favour.

Some 55 million of Egypt's nearly 100 million population are eligible to cast votes in the referendum, which will be held over three days starting on Saturday.

While the changes are widely expected to pass, observers say the size of the turnout will be watched as a test of Sisi's popularity, which has been dented by economic austerity measures since 2016.

The Egyptian parliament voted in favour of constitutional amendments allowing Sisi to stay in power until 2030.
The Egyptian parliament voted in favour of constitutional amendments allowing Sisi to stay in power until 2030. (AFP)

'Leave it to God'

Opponents of the changes complained that they were being rushed through without proper public scrutiny.

"They are not giving us time to even organise a campaign to ask people to vote no," said Khaled Dawoud, a member of the opposition Civil Democratic Movement, which has rejected the changes.

"This is the final deathblow after all the ambitions we had after the 2011 revolution," said Dawoud, referring to the uprising that ousted veteran leader Hosni Mubarak. Dawoud said campaigning would take place online due to the lack of time.

If approved, the amendments would extend Sisi's current term to six years from four and allow him to run again for a third six-year term in 2024.

They would also grant the president control over appointing head judges and the public prosecutor from a pool of candidates. They would task the military with protecting "the constitution and democracy and the fundamental makeup of the country and its civil nature".

Banners urging Egyptians to participate in the referendum sprang up in Cairo this month before the final version of the amendments was known or voted on by parliament. Some of the signs encourage people to vote yes.

"Vote? Vote for what?" asked a horse carriage driver sitting at a cafe in a working-class Cairo neighbourhood.

"It won't make a difference," said the 67-year-old, who declined to give his name. "Leave it to God."

Shehata (far right) hears a statement from defendant Mohamed Fahmy during the trial of Al Jazeera Journalists.
Shehata (far right) hears a statement from defendant Mohamed Fahmy during the trial of Al Jazeera Journalists. (AFP)

Rise to power

Sisi came to power after spearheading, as defence minister, the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Mursi as Egypt's first-ever elected president in 2013, and winning the election a year later. He was elected to a second four-year term last year.

Under Sisi, Egypt has witnessed a crackdown on dissent that rights groups say is unprecedented in its recent history. Media and social media are tightly controlled.

Lina Khatib, head of Chatham House Middle East and North Africa Programme, said the amendments "pave the way for a power grab" by Sisi.

"This has grave implications for prospects of democracy in Egypt in the medium term and makes it difficult for alternative political voices to contest power in the long term," she said in an emailed comment to Reuters.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies