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"Egypt has eliminated the opposition; it's an environment of repression and fear," said Mohamad Elmasry, professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.
About 61 million Egyptians began to vote on Saturday in a three-day constitutional referendum, from April 19 to April 22, that would allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to stay in power until 2030 and acquire more controls over the national army.
Egyptians are being asked to vote 'Yes' or 'No' to a package of amendments Saturday, some of which would allow el-Sissi to extend his current mandate until 2024 and then rerun for another six-year term that would end in 2030. For the fourth time in eight years, Egyptians go to polling stations to vote on the constitution.
Since el-Sissi was re-elected President in 2018, under conditions that did not allow for any serious opposition, the question arose of a future amendment of the constitution to enable him to remain in power beyond his second term. The constitution adopted by a referendum in 2014 following teh fall of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak, stipulates that the president can only be elected for two four-year terms, which would have seen el-Sissi leaving the presidency in 2022.
The revised Constitution gives the president powers that risk undermining judicial and prosecutorial independence. Indeed, according to the Article 185, the President will preside over the Supreme Council of the Judiciary and may appoint the presidents of the leading courts as well as the Attorney General and the President of the High Constitutional Court.
It establishes a chamber of 180 members in which one-third of the members are appointed by president, according to articles 248, 250 and 253. Other amendments reduce the number of deputies in the Assembly and impose a quota of 25% of women.
The modification of the new Constitution also expands military powers.
Human rights defenders expressed their concerns about legal changes.
"These amendments aim to smother Egyptians’ aspirations to live in dignity and under the rule of law," said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "The authorities should immediately halt efforts to pass these amendments by threatening, disappearing, and persecuting peaceful critics and dissidents."
"I think you have to take votes that are held in military dictatorships with several grains of salt," said Mohamad Elmasry, associate professor at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies to Al-Jazeera network. "Egypt has eliminated the opposition; it's an environment of repression and fear. People are terrified to vote and express dissent."
Elmasry added that "in the lead-up to this vote, more than 120 people have been arrested for campaigning for the 'no vote.' We have to remember there are no independent monitors, so the government is free to rig the results."
The final results will be announced on April 27. The authorities have given no participation figures so far.