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Egyptians vote in constitutional referendum seen boosting General al-Sisi

An Egyptian man living in Oman casts her vote on a divisive draft constitution in Egypt at the Egyptian embassy in the Gulf. (AFP)

Egyptians voted in a constitutional referendum, the first ballot since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi and an event likely to spawn a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Few doubt that Egyptians, who staged mass protests against Morsi's rule before his ouster, will turn out in big numbers and vote "yes" in the two-day referendum, a milestone in the army-backed government's political road map.

Sisi deposed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected head of state, in July. His Islamist foes see Sisi as the mastermind of a coup that kindled the worst internal strife in Egypt's modern history and brought back what critics call a police state.

But many Egyptians are weary of the political upheaval that has gripped Egypt and shattered its economy since they rose up to topple autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and they view Sisi as a decisive figure who can reinstate stability.

Analysts say the referendum is also turning out to be a vote on the popularity of a man whose image features on posters across Cairo.

If he runs for president, Sisi is widely expected to win.

"He's a man," said Om Sami, who lives in a Cairo slum, summing up a widespread view that bringing back powerful military officers to rule would be acceptable, even though it could undermine democratic gains made after Mubarak's fall.

"The situation does not please us, but we'll vote 'yes' and God willing it will get better."

This will be the third time Egyptians have voted on constitutional arrangements since the historic uprising against Mubarak, a former air force chief, in January 2011, and overall the sixth time they have gone to the polls since his downfall.

The constitution will replace one signed into law by Morsi a little more than a year ago after it was approved in a referendum. The new text strips out disputed Islamist language while strengthening state institutions that defied Morsi: the military, the police and the judiciary.

Egypt's Western allies were hoping that a more competitive political field would emerge, three years after the Arab Spring tide of democratic change swept through the country.

Approval of the rewritten constitution appears a foregone conclusion. Mursi's now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood is calling for a boycott rather than a "no" vote, while many Egyptians who backed his removal are expected to vote "yes" in support of the army-backed order that has replaced Islamist rule.

The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based group that works to uphold the rule of law, described the draft constitution as highly flawed.

"The referendum campaign has taken place within a context of fear, intimidation and repression, calling into question the fairness of the entire process," it said in a statement.

The referendum anchors a transition plan the government unveiled in July with the stated aim of restoring democracy, although it simultaneously launched a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood, Egypt's best organised party until last year.

Driven underground and declared a terrorist group on Dec. 25, the Brotherhood has said it will shun the road map. A presidential vote is expected as early as April, once the referendum is approved, with a parliamentary election later.

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Tags:  World  Egypt  General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi  Constitutional referendum  





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