, CAIRO, Jan 16 – Egypt awaited Thursday results of a referendum on a new constitution that could launch a presidential bid by the army chief, with initial tallies indicating overwhelming support for the charter.
Given a boycott by the Islamist opposition, the result has never been in doubt, but the military-installed government is hoping for a large turnout to bolster its democratic credentials after the overthrow of president Mohamed Morsi.
State media suggested at least 90 percent of those voting had supported the new charter, which the authorities say provides greater freedom of speech and protection of women’s rights.
“The people say ‘Yes,'” said a front-page headline in Al-Akhbar, while Al-Ahram reported that 90 percent of voters had backed the charter.
After two days of voting that were marred by sporadic and deadly clashes between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and police, polling ended at 9:00 pm Wednesday.
Final results are expected within 72 hours from then.
Officials have said army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who toppled the Islamist Morsi in July, will closely monitor turnout as he mulls going for the top job himself in an election promised for later this year.
Sisi has said he is prepared to run if there is enough popular support, and the referendum is seen as providing the first concrete test.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, now designated a terrorist group, had hoped a low turnout would send a message of discontent over Morsi’s overthrow and a brutal crackdown on his supporters.
The military’s spokesman thanked the “masses” of voters for taking part in what he called the “heroic battle of the referendum.”
On Tuesday, clashes between Morsi supporters and their opponents and police killed at least nine people, but no fatal incidents were reported Wednesday.
Additionally, at least 444 people were arrested for protesting and disrupting polling , the interior ministry said.
Sisi needs high turnout
The government said it was aiming for a larger turnout than the 33 percent of 53 million registered voters who approved a constitution under Morsi in 2012 by 64 percent.
“We are hoping it exceeds 50 percent,” government spokesman Hany Salah told AFP.
Analysts say a turnout higher than that will decide the future of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“A turnout higher than what the 2012 constitution received will show that Morsi and the Brotherhood have been excluded from the country’s political scene, at least in the near term,” Hassan Nafea, professor of political science at Cairo University, told AFP.
The Brotherhood dominated every poll held since the ouster of long-time ruler Hosni Mubarak in early 2011.
But the movement, accused of trying to monopolise power, quickly alienated many Egyptians after Morsi took office.
“I voted yes for this constitution because I don’t trust the Muslim Brotherhood. It is good the Brotherhood is out of power now,” said Randa Ismail, one of the last voters to cast her ballot at a Cairo polling station.
But Amr Desoki, a student who said he was not a Brotherhood member, said he boycotted the referendum.
“This constitution or whatever this farce is going on these days… I am boycotting it… The constitution to me is illegitimate and I don’t recognise it.”
US Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday he hoped the referendum would be “transparent and accountable”.
A day earlier, the State Department said a bill Congress is expected to pass Friday will allow the White House to unfreeze all $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) in US aid if it can certify Egypt “has held a constitutional referendum, and is taking steps to support a democratic transition.”
The new constitution has done away with much of the Islamist-inspired wording of Morsi’s charter. It bolsters the military’s powers and allows it to try civilians for attacks on the armed forces.
Interim president Adly Mansour’s government has pledged that the referendum will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.
The Brotherhood, much of whose leadership was jailed after Morsi’s overthrow, is likely to boycott the elections.