Egypt sets date for referendum on extending Sisi's rule


Egypt on Wednesday set a referendum for 20-22 April on sweeping constitutional changes including amendments that could extend President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi's rule until 2030. The push to extend the former military chief's tenure is expected to face little opposition, despite rights groups calling it "unconstitutional" and designed to "consolidate authoritarianism".

Head of the National Election Authority Lashin Ibrahim told a press conference the vote will "take place inside Egypt" from 20-22 April and start a day earlier at diplomatic missions abroad. The announcement came after parliament on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved the changes extending presidential terms from four to six years.

The amendments would prolong Sisi's current term to 2024 from 2022 and allow him to then run for another six-year term. They also include giving the military greater influence in political life, granting Sisi wide control over the judiciary and broadening the jurisdiction of military courts over civilians.

Sisi led the army's overthrow of elected president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 following mass protests against the Islamist leader's rule. He won his first term as president in 2014 and was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent of the vote, after standing virtually unopposed.

International observers slammed both elections and Sisi's government has been widely criticised for sweeping repression of its opponents. Activists including Human Rights Watch have blasted the constitutional changes as part of efforts to enhance Sisi's "authoritarian rule". Amnesty International said that by approving the amendments, parliamentarians had shown a "complete disregard for human rights".

The haste with which the referendum has been pushed through prompted a group of Egyptian human rights groups to call the electoral process "unfree and unfair".

"The current national climate in Egypt is devoid of any space in which a... referendum can occur with... guarantees of partiality and fairness," the joint statement on Wednesday said.

But electoral chief Ibrahim dismissed concerns about the political situation in Egypt, telling journalists that it was "one hundred percent" free and fair.

The vote comes after veteran presidents were ousted both in Algeria and Sudan and amid an escalation of the conflict in Libya.

Sisi has earned the support of some Western powers by setting himself as a key bulwark against terrorism and turmoil in the Middle East. Under his rule, the authorities have clamped down on Islamists in a broad crackdown that later swept up secular and liberal activists.

To many Egyptians he is viewed as a champion of stability after years of upheaval following the 2011 uprising that toppled long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The country has simultaneously been preparing for the referendum as parliament debated on the amendments since the start of April. Banners and billboards have gone up across the capital Cairo in the past few weeks urging people to take part in the plebiscite.

Many feature slogans implicitly urge people to back the amendments by doing "the right thing", while others sponsored by the pro-government Nation's Future party call outright for a "Yes" vote.

Cairo resident Sayed Abdel Fattah Ahmed told journalists that he was in favour of the changes even though he admitted he had not read them thoroughly.

"My view is that these amendments are essential," the 56-year-old said. The constitution "is not a holy book, it can be changed based on the... situation in the country," he added.    (AFP)

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