The referendum to approve constitutional amendments that extended Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s term, granted permission for him to run for another six years in 2024, and increased the powers of his office passed Tuesday with over 88 percent of votes cast in favor, according to the Egyptian election commission.
Election commission chairman Lasheen Ibrahim swiftly announced the results after the polls closed on Tuesday. Ibrahim said overall turnout for the referendum was 44 percent and 23.4 million voters endorsed the changes.
Those figures will come as a disappointment to the Egyptian opposition, which anticipated great difficulty in defeating the amendments and hoped to either make Sisi’s margin of victory thin or keep turnout lower than his 2018 re-election to send a message that his popularity is waning. Turnout for the referendum ended up being slightly higher than the 41 percent reported for the 2018 election, which Sisi won with 97 percent of the vote.
Critics alleged the referendum was distorted in Sisi’s favor with vote-buying tactics, including widespread reports that poor Egyptians who voted in favor of the amendments were rewarded with boxes of groceries.
Despite reams of photographic evidence about the grocery payoffs and numerous voters cheerfully telling foreign media they were rewarded with food and vouchers for their votes, the election commission insisted there were no credible reports of irregularities in the referendum. The commission promised to thoroughly investigate such reports if they are submitted.
The UK Guardian added fuel to the controversy on Tuesday by describing covertly-recorded video clips of Egyptian policemen simply grabbing passersby and shoving them into polling places. Opposition activists said most Egyptians were terrified of voting against amendments strongly desired by President Sisi.
Sisi thanked Egyptian voters on Twitter and said they had “dazzled the world with their awarenesses of the challenges” facing their country. Supporters presented the amendments as vital tools for ensuring social stability, continuing economic reforms, and battling terrorism.
Lasheen, in the course of announcing the amendments are “effective from now as your constitution,” told Egyptians the changes would lead to greater representation for groups such as women, Christians, and farmers.
Critics like Amnesty International shot back that Egypt is descending into authoritarianism and the revised constitution will “further the climate of repression that already exists in the country.”
“The constitutional amendments are a shameless attempt to entrench the military’s power over civilian rule, and the referendum took place in such an unfree and unfair environment that its results can have no pretense to legitimacy,” Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday.
HRW castigated Sisi for his “desire to demolish an independent judiciary and secure his autocratic rule for at least 11 more years,” creating an “impoverished and repressive political environment” reminiscent of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.
The BBC talked to some Egyptian voters who sounded wearily resigned to autocratic rule and apprehensive about the faltering economy and the effects of government “austerity measures,” but lauded Sisi for improving the security situation and making visible investments in infrastructure, policies which they saw as effective at reviving the vital Egyptian tourism industry.