Egyptian voters approved amendments to the constitution in a referendum held from 20-22 April 2019, with 88.80 per cent of the votes in favour and a turnout of 44.30 per cent, the elections authority announced on 23 April.
“The referendum came out in the best way, in a form that makes Egypt proud,” said the head of the elections authority at the press conference. “We have moved ahead from establishing democracy to stabilizing and maintaining democracy.”
This democracy, which potentially extends President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s term until 2030, included widespread vote buying, a completely one-sided campaign in support of the amendments and the arrest of possible opponents.
Fanack witnessed how voters received coupons in a small alley, used as a parking lot, next to a polling station in downtown Cairo, and after voting had the coupon stamped. The woman stamping the coupons was wearing the same shirt with the referendum logo as the staff at the polling station.
Some people walked out with money in their hands, having received 50 Egyptian pounds ($2.90) for their vote, a bystander told Fanack. “Selling your country for 50 pounds!” he said disapprovingly.
Instead of money, voters could also go to the supermarket around the corner, where boxes of food were distributed. “For the elections,” the woman behind the counter said of the boxes, which at first sight appeared to contain basic foodstuffs such as pasta, rice and potatoes.
Various international media witnessed voters being handed food boxes and cash as well. The New York Times reported that buses and tuktuks were offering free rides to polling stations. Fanack saw minibuses, marked with a referendum sticker with a green checkmark on it, arriving at the polling station downtown. The Guardian noted bus rides being organized from working-class areas into central Cairo.
The Egyptian State Information Services said reports about vote buying were contradictory and limited, asserting that in cases of food distribution, individual businesspeople or party delegates were responsible and not the state.
Naturally, not everyone voted for food or money. Street seller Said told Fanack he “loves” al-Sisi, whom he believes restored stability and security after years of unrest following the 25 January Revolution in 2011. “Security and stability are the most important thing, without it there is no living,” he said.
Fanack also spoke to other people, including a Coptic man in his 50s, who said changing the constitution was “a wrong thing”, but he voted in favour of the changes anyway as “there is no alternative”. He feared that the only alternative to al-Sisi would be an Islamist leadership, saying that “at least [al-Sisi] fights fanatics”.
The three-day referendum was a big circus in central Cairo. Polling stations were equipped with speakers playing nationalistic and referendum songs on repeat from the time they opened at 8am to the time they closed at 9pm.
Crowds of people dancing and clapping could also be seen outside polling stations. One bystander said they were paid 500 Egyptian pounds for the three days, but Fanack could not verify the claim.
In the build-up to the referendum, no effort was spared to convince people to cast their ballots. Even before the parliament officially approved the amendments on 16 April and the referendum had not been announced, Cairo’s streets were filled with banners urging people to vote, often in combination with large pictures of al-Sisi. In one instance, Fanack saw the police hanging up the banners.
‘Do the right thing’, the referendum slogan commanded. Media, businesspeople and lawmakers made sure to assert that ‘the right thing’ was voting yes. Fanack did not see a single banner opposing the amendments.
One man holding a sign calling on people to vote no was arrested on the second day of the referendum, local news website Mada Masr reported. At least ten songs were released urging people to ‘come out and vote’, including one by the popular underground band Massar Egbari and Lebanese pop star Nancy Ajram. The referendum campaign also released a video with actors and artists calling upon Egyptians to participate and ‘do the right thing’.
The day before the referendum started, many Vodafone users received an SMS from the pro-al-Sisi block in parliament, the Future of the Nation Party, with a similar message.
Reportedly, 34,000 internet domains were blocked in an effort to shut down an online campaign opposing the amendments.
What is left of the opposition, including veteran politicians such as Mohamed Anwar al-Sadat, Hamdeen Sabahi and Khaled Dawoud, tried to join forces to counter the amendments but remained marginalized.
Since last summer, the Egyptian police has been rounding up activists, bloggers, journalists and politicians known for their criticism of the regime, in an apparent bid to nip potential opposition to the amendments in the bud.
The amendments include an extension of the presidential term to six years, which means al-Sisi, whose current term was due to end in 2022, can now stay in power until 2024 plus another six years if he is reelected. A 180-member Shura Council (senate) will be reinstated, of which a third of the members will be directly appointed by the president.
In addition, the president has been granted further powers to select and appoint judges and the prosecutor general, in what has been described by a group of Egyptian NGOs as an elimination of ‘all remnants of judicial independence’t.
The amendments also redefine the role of the army as the protector and guarantor of the state, constitution and people. Finally, the post of vice-president will be reinstated and there will be a women’s quota of 25 per cent of seats in parliament.
In an interview with the news agency Reuters, Dawoud described the changes as “the final deathblow after all the ambitions we had after the 2011 revolution”.