CAIRO, Egypt – Officials are to announce Saturday, January 18, the results of a constitutional referendum likely to set the stage for a presidential bid by the army chief who toppled Egypt’s first freely elected head of state.
Initial tallies suggest this week’s two-day referendum passed with an overwhelming majority, in what the military-installed government said was a strong stamp of approval for the overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who ousted Morsi in July after massive protests, was monitoring the outcome for an indication of support for a possible presidential bid, military officials said.
He is expected to make up his mind after the results are announced at a news conference due to start at 1600 GMT, with his backers already calling for a rally on January 25 to emphasize their support. (READ:Egypt awaits results on key post-Morsi vote)
Flagship state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram said Saturday the turnout was more than 40 percent of the country’s 53 million registered voters, with the “overwhelming majority” voting yes.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had boycotted the referendum, which is to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections.
The new constitution will replace the one adopted under Morsi in a 2012 vote and passed with 33 percent voter turnout. It has done away with much of the Islamist-inspired wording of Morsi’s constitution.
Sisi is wildly popular among the millions who took to the streets against Morsi, but the Islamist’s followers revile him for what they say was a “coup” against Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president.
The Brotherhood, harried by a deadly crackdown since Morsi’s removal, dismissed the referendum as “farce” and called for further protests.
It has called rallies for January 25, the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that overthrew veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim also called for demonstrations on the same day to counter an Islamist “plot to spark chaos,” an unusual appeal from the top police official tasked with enforcing a law restricting protests.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed and thousands imprisoned in a police crackdown on pro-Morsi protests.
On Friday, January 17, 3 men were killed in Cairo and another in clashes in Fayoum, southwest of the capital, the health ministry said, as police clamped down on the Islamist rallies.
The government hoped a large turnout in the referendum would bolster its democratic credentials and further marginalize the Islamists.
‘Sisi for presidency’
Many who took part in the referendum said their vote was also an endorsement of Sisi, seen as a strong man capable of restoring security after three years of turmoil following Mubarak’s overthrow.
Morsi’s supporters wish to have Sisi tried internationally for crimes against humanity for the deadly crackdown, but the general is adored by his supporters and will face no serious competition if he stands for election.
Reflecting this, the state-run Al-Akhbar newspaper trumpted its support for him on Saturday, declaring in a front-page banner that “All roads lead Sisi to the presidency of the republic”.
In the first test of democracy after Morsi’s overthrow, the run-up to the referendum was marred by arrests of activists who campaigned against the constitution.
“There was no real opportunity for those opposed to the government’s roadmap or the proposed constitution to dissent,” said monitoring group Democracy International, which observed the referendum.
The group said its monitors witnessed security forces and campaigning material inside polling stations, but there was “no evidence that such problems substantially affected the outcome of this referendum”.
The US administration is closely watching the results of Egypt’s referendum, but has not yet decided whether to unfreeze some $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) in aid, the State Department said Thursday, January 16.
The vote has put the Brotherhood, which the government designated last month as a terrorist group, on the back foot.
Morsi himself has been in custody since his ouster and is currently standing trial in the first of three separate cases against him.