Egyptian regime suppresses campaigns opposing constitutional changes

Despite opposition campaigns, Egyptians overwhelmingly voted in favor of constitutional amendments that could stretch President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s stay in office until 2030.

al-monitor An army soldier stands guard outside a polling station, during the referendum on draft constitutional amendments, Cairo, Egypt, April 20, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh.
Rasha Mahmoud

Rasha Mahmoud


Topics covered

muslim brotherhood, fraud, egyptian opposition, referendum, voters, egyptian constitution, abdel fattah al-sisi

Apr 26, 2019

Egypt’s National Elections Commission announced April 23 that 88.83% of Egyptians approved constitutional changes during a three-day referendum held in Egypt on April 19-21. The voting for Egyptians abroad took place on April 20-22.

Over 27 million people participated, with a voter turnout of 44.33%. More than 23 million Egyptians voted in favor of the amendments and around 2 million people (11.17%) voted no.

The proposed constitutional changes allow President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain in power until 2030, strengthen the role of the army and establish a senate as “a second parliamentary chamber.”

The voting was, however, held amid campaigns, both at home and abroad, rejecting the changes, as well as calls to boycott the referendum or vote against the changes.

On the first day of voting abroad, the Egyptian flag rose above all, amid supporters' campaigns, particularly in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. However, some protesters wore black clothes and banners bearing the word “no” and some even took to social media and posted pictures voting no in several voting booths overseas, namely the Qatari capital Doha.

The government mobilized voters through various means, mainly through TV channels, patriotic songs, banners, conferences, decisions by Sisi to raise the salaries of employees and pensioners, as well as impose a fine on the boycotters, amid the complete absence of opposition on the ground.

In various governorates, voters confirmed that they were offered food and cash to vote in favor of the constitutional amendment. Videos were posted on social media showing the Nation’s Future Party offering special Ramandan food boxes while citizens stood in line to sell their votes in exchange.

Under the banner of “Do the right thing,” propaganda filled public and private media in Egypt over the past weeks in favor of the constitutional amendments. Well-known figures in various fields made appearances to support these amendments and many political forces and parties organized mass rallies inside and outside the walls of their headquarters.

Kamal Osman Makhlouf, head of the Upper Egypt Tribes Association, which solves tribal disputes, told Al-Monitor that he organized a conference on April 14-16 to support the constitutional amendments after obtaining the security permits required for such gatherings.

The constitutional amendments, submitted by the Egypt Support Coalition to parliament in February suggest increasing the presidential mandate from four to six years, so long as presidents are in office for only two consecutive mandates. Other proposed amendments include drafting a transitional text allowing current President Sisi to be reelected for two new terms.

On April 16, parliament approved the constitutional changes, paving the way for the referendum. A total of 531 out of 554 members of parliament present at the session voted in favor of the measures, while 22 rejected them and one parliamentarian, Dina Abdel Aziz, abstained.

Sisi said in an interview with CNBC in 2017 that he did not intend to amend the constitution and would reject a third term. He added that he would not run for a third term in the presidential election in 2022. In March 2018, before being elected for a second term, Sisi stressed how he rejected introducing new constitutional amendment “during this period.”

Sisi remained silent until the referendum’s results were announced. In a post on his official Facebook page, the president thanked the Egyptian people for “dazzling the world with their patriotism and national awareness of the challenges facing our beloved country Egypt.”

While the Egyptian opposition was united in voting against the amendments, the Muslim Brotherhood called for boycotting the vote completely, questioning the legitimacy of the regime.

“The Muslim Brotherhood rejects this ridiculous play and condemns this new coup all together. [The Brotherhood] reiterates its rejection of the military coup and all the invalid procedures resulting from it,” the Brotherhood said in a statement April 15.

Former Egyptian Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei and former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi were some of the most prominent figures who called on voting no, along with dozens of leftist and liberal parties as well as the 25-30 bloc, an opposition-affiliated parliamentary bloc.

An online voting campaign gathered over 20,000 signatures for the “No to constitutional amendments” petition. Only a few hours after the campaign was launched, Egyptian authorities blocked it across the country.

Another online campaign was launched under the title “Null and void,” in opposition of the amendments. It included a social media page and a website, which collected more than 700,000 votes against the amendments, despite repeated attempts to block the site.

In mid-March, former presidential candidate Ayman Nour announced that “a new channel is being established, called La [Arabic for No],” and that it has already begun its experimental broadcast. “The most important issues that led us to establish this channel are the constitutional amendments, after receiving 50,000 letters from the Egyptian people rejecting the amendments,” Nour said.

During the voting on the referendum, opposition parliamentarian Ahmed Tantawy called on Egyptians to reject the constitutional amendments because they devote the rule to one person and take the country back to the Middle Ages.

“I call on the Egyptians to save the political course,” Tantawy said in a video he posted on his Facebook page, pointing out that the campaigns urging citizens to vote in favor of the amendments only came after opposition campaigns were oppressed.

He suggested that passing the constitutional amendments in this way violates the spirit of the constitution, the only gain that the Egyptians got after the January 25 Revolution.

Tantawy told Al-Monitor that passing the constitutional amendments also means recognition of the measures and policies that have been implemented over the past years, such as giving up the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia, borrowing from the International Monetary Fund, which drove Egyptians to poverty, as well as the failure of negotiations in the Renaissance Dam issue, which will affect Egypt’s water share.

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