By Samer Al Atrush – AFP
Egyptian voters overwhelmingly backed a new constitution that paves the way for the army chief to run for president, results showed Thursday, but turnout figures will provide a key measure of his popularity.
Initial tallies reported by state media gave 90 percent support for the new charter, which the military-installed authorities say provides greater protection for freedom of speech and women’s rights.
The result of the referendum was always a foregone conclusion with the Muslim Brotherhood, designated a “terrorist organisation” by the government, calling for a boycott and little sign of a “No” campaign in the run-up to the vote.
Officials have said that army chief Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, who toppled Islamist president Mohamed Morsi in July, will closely monitor turnout as he mulls going for the top job himself in an election promised for later this year.
Sisi has said he is prepared to run if there is enough popular support and the two-day referendum that wrapped up on Wednesday provides the first concrete test.
The military’s spokesman thanked the “masses” of voters for taking part in what he called the “heroic battle of the referendum”.
Egyptian state-run dailies hailed the vote.
“The people say ‘Yes’,” said a front-page headline in Al-Akhbar, while Al-Ahram reported that 90 percent of voters had voted in favour of the charter.
On Tuesday, sporadic clashes between Morsi supporters and their opponents and police left at least nine people dead, but no fatal incidents were reported on Wednesday.
At least 444 people were arrested for protesting and disrupting polling over the two-day vote, the interior ministry said.
The government said it was aiming for a larger turnout than the 33 percent of the country’s 53 million registered voters who cast a ballot in a constitutional referendum under Morsi in 2012, with 64 percent voting yes.
“We are hoping it exceeds 50 percent,” government spokesman Hany Salah told AFP.
The new text has done away with much of the Islamist-inspired wording of Morsi’s charter. It bolsters the military’s powers and allows it to try civilians for attacks on the armed forces.
Morsi’s Brotherhood was designated a terrorist group by the military-installed authorities as part of their crackdown on the movement that dominated all previous polls since the ouster of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in early 2011.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped the referendum would be “transparent and accountable”.
“But we don’t know yet,” he told reporters in Kuwait.
On Tuesday, the State Department said a bill Congress is expected to pass on Friday will allow the White House to unfreeze all $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) in US aid if it can certify Egypt “has held a constitutional referendum, and is taking steps to support a democratic transition”.
Military authority disputed
The government hopes a large turnout in favour of the new constitution will bolster its disputed authority, while army chief Sisi will monitor it for an “indicator” of his popularity, an official close to the general said.
Interim president Adly Mansour’s government has pledged the referendum will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
Backers of the charter are hoping it will garner the support of at least 70 percent of votes cast.
“I voted yes for this constitution because I don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood. It is good the Brotherhood is out of power now,” said Randa Ismail, one of the last voters to cast her ballot at a Cairo polling station late Wednesday.
But Amr Desoki, a student who said he was not a Brotherhood member, said he was boycotting the referendum.
“This constitution or whatever this farce is going on these days… I am boycotting it… The constitution to me is illegitimate and I don’t recognise it.”