Egypt has just passed constitutional amendments in a hastily-arranged referendum that ended on April 22. They are important mostly because they will advance President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s project of one-man rule, extend his current term in office, enshrine military dominance over politics, and erode judicial independence. Not only was the substance of the amendments outrageous, but even the announcement of the results added insult to injury.
Egypt under Sisi no longer holds free and fair elections, but the electoral authorities still make a show of announcing detailed results that create the impression of seriousness. The authorities announced that 27,193,593 Egyptians had voted in the referendum, out of 61,344,503 eligible voters, indicating a turnout of 44 percent. They also declared that 89 percent of valid votes had been in favor of the referendum questions, while 11 percent were opposed. In addition, there were more than 1 million spoiled ballots.
The announced figures, however precise, were not credible. If more than 27 million voters turned out at the 10,878 polling stations, then every polling station would have had to process an average of 69 voters for every one of the 36 hours of voting—more than one voter every minute. In other words, many stations would have been crowded, with queues of voters at peak hours. Although government-dominated media in Egypt reported “heavy turnout” repeatedly over the three days, there was scant photographic or anecdotal evidence of this from journalists or individual voters—by contrast with ample evidence of turnout during the freer elections of 2011 and 2012.
So why did the Egyptian authorities announce that 44 percent voted? Probably to try to establish the legitimacy of the latest referendum compared to previous ones. After the preceding constitutional referendums, turnouts of between 27 percent (in 2007) and 42 percent (in 2011) were recorded. And the turnout to approve the 2014 constitution was reportedly 39 percent. In other words the reported 44 percent turnout was supposed to show that the new amendments were the most legitimate ever.
Perhaps the most intriguing number was the 11 percent of votes reported against the amendments. In referendums before Sisi, much higher votes against amendments were recorded: 24 percent voted “no” in 2007, 23 percent in 2011, and 36 percent in 2012. After the military coup, a mere 2 percent was recorded as voting against the 2014 constitution. In the recent referendum, it appeared that the “no” vote was sufficiently significant that the authorities decided to acknowledge that it was much higher than in 2014—five times higher—though low compared to previous referendums.
The fact that opposing votes were numerous enough that they could not be entirely ignored or denied highlighted an unintended consequence of Sisi’s constitutional gambit: Opposition has begun to reemerge despite nearly six years of grinding repression. In January 2019, when the amendments were only rumors, more than a thousand Egyptians, including prominent public figures, signed a statement rejecting any changes that would allow Sisi to extend his term. The Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition that includes well-known figures such as former presidential candidates Hamdeen Sabbahi and Mohammed Anwar al-Sadat, was formed shortly after that to challenge the amendments. Denied a permit to demonstrate, members of the movement held a press conference and described the amendments as an “assault on democracy.”
During the few weeks between the introduction of the amendments in parliament and the referendum—the actual date of which was announced less than a week in advance—activists and public figures called increasingly on citizens to vote “no” rather than boycott. Many posted videos on the anti-regime Facebook page Al-Mawqif Al-Masry. Others tweeted in favor of voting “no,” often using the hashtag “La li-ta‘deel al-dustur” (No to Amending the Constitution). The most successful antiamendment online campaign, called Batil (null and void), had garnered 250,000 signatures as of April 16, when it was blocked by the government along with thousands of other websites.
There were also small acts of dissent on the streets. The Freedom for Egypt movement, consisting largely of young people, formed in March and has been hanging banners, spray-painting graffiti, and handing out leaflets that oppose the amendments. There have been several recent cases of individual Egyptians walking into public squares with hand-lettered signs critical of Sisi, inviting the arrest and imprisonment they know will follow such gestures of self-sacrifice. As the actor turned opposition figure Amr Waked explained in an interview, passive methods such as boycotts have failed. “We are in urgent need of a different path and to think in new ways,” he added.