New Egyptian constitution backed by 98 per cent of voters

Result seen as endorsement of military's roadmap to democracy and possible candidacy of army chief Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi for president.

Supporters of Egypt's army chief and defence minister Gen Abdel Fattah El Sisi hold up posters of him as they celebrate the passing of a new constitution at Tahrir Square in Cairo on Saturday. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
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CAIRO // More than 98 per cent of Egyptians backed a new constitution in a referendum, authorities said on Saturday.

The vote advances a transition plan the military-backed government unveiled after the removal of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last July following mass unrest over his rule.

Voters supported the constitution by 98.1 per cent, said the head of the supreme election committee, Nabil Salib. A total of 38.6 per cent of eligible voters took part, he said.

The UAE’s Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, congratulated the Egyptian people on the success of the referendum.

“The move is a major milestone towards the road map for the future, which will usher sisterly Egypt into the aspired stability and development,” Sheikh Abdullah said. The UAE news agency Wam reported that Sheikh Abdullah noted the large turnout of voters and their landslide approval of the constitution.

The new charter replaces an Islamist-inspired one adopted in a December 2012 referendum under Mr Morsi with about two-thirds of the vote and a 33 per cent turnout.

Authorities say it protects women’s rights and freedom of speech.

Army chief Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the general who removed Mr Morsi in July after massive protests, was monitoring the outcome for an indication of support for a possible presidential bid, military officials said.

He is expected to make up his mind now that the results have been announced, with his backers already calling for a rally on January 25 to emphasise their support.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are to be held later this year.

Gen El Sisi is wildly popular among the millions who took to the streets against Mr Morsi, but the Muslim Brotherhood’s followers revile him. The Brotherhood dismissed the referendum as “farce” and called for further protests.

It has also called rallies for January 25, the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that overthrew veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak.

The interior minister, Mohamed Ibrahim, also called for demonstrations on the same day to counter an Islamist “plot to spark chaos,” an unusual appeal from the top police official tasked with enforcing a law that restricts protests.

On Friday, three men were killed in Cairo and another in clashes in Fayoum, south-west of the capital, the health ministry said, as police clamped down on Islamist rallies.

The government hoped a large turnout in the referendum would bolster its democratic credentials and further marginalise the Islamists.

Many who took part in the referendum said their vote was also an endorsement of Gen El Sisi, seen as a strong man capable of restoring security after the three years of turmoil following Mr Mubarak’s overthrow.

“If General Sisi nominates himself for president his chances will be great,” Ahmed Al Muslimani, a presidential aide, told the London-based Al Sharq Al Awsat newspaper.

Mr Muslimani said he spoke with the general a few days before and he had not yet made up his mind, but other officials say his candidacy appears to be a foregone conclusion.

The state-run Al Akhbar newspaper, meanwhile, trumpeted its support for Gen El Sisi, declaring in a Saturday front-page banner that: “All roads lead Sisi to the presidency of the republic.”

The vote has put the Brotherhood, which the government designated last month as a terrorist group, on the back foot.

Mr Morsi himself has been in custody since his ouster and is currently standing trial in the first of three separate cases against him.

* Reuters with additional reporting from WAM and Agence France-Presse