FILE PHOTO: A man walks in front of a banner reading, "Yes to the constitutional amendments, for a better future", with a photo of the Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi before the approaching referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo
CAIRO (Reuters) - Nearly 90 percent of Egyptian voters in a referendum have approved constitutional changes, the election commission said on Tuesday, in a move that could pave the way for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to stay in power until 2030.
Voter turnout during the three-day referendum was 44.33 percent and 88.83 percent of those taking part approved the amendments while 11.17 percent voted no, the commission said.
"These (changes) are effective from now as your constitution," commission Chairman Lasheen Ibrahim said after he announced the result on state TV, adding that more than 23.4 million voters had endorsed the changes in the referendum.
The amendments will extend Sisi's current term to six years from four and allow him to run again for a third six-year term in 2024 and to appoint one or more vice presidents.
They will also grant the president control over appointing head judges and the public prosecutor from a pool of candidates, and give Egypt's powerful military the role of protecting "the constitution and democracy".
Michele Dunne, senior fellow and director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, questioned the credibility of the turnout figure announced.
"Rather than being a reflection of actual data, the announced 44 percent turnout is more likely an attempt to portray this as the most legitimate constitutional referendum, as it has the highest turnout ever reported," she said.
A group of opposition figures, who launched an online campaign opposing the amendments that was later blocked in Egypt, also cast doubt about the result. They said that the voting process was undemocratic and left no room for Egyptians to express opposing views.
"Sisi’s machine of oppression has denied the Egyptian people’s right to express their opinions, thus obstructing all possible peaceful ways for the Egyptians to express their rejection," the opposition members said in a statement. They added that the government had used public money to distribute electoral bribes.
“We do not recognize this outcome, resulting from a sham referendum, and consider it completely null and void, both formally and substantively," they said.
The electoral commission said on Monday afternoon it had not received any formal complaints about any irregularities.
The commission says it has strict measures to ensure a fair and free vote, posting judges at each polling station and using special ink to prevent multiple voting.
Sisi expressed his "appreciation and pride" on Twitter to the Egyptian people who he said had "dazzled the world with their awareness of the challenges" facing Egypt by participating in the referendum.
Sisi's supporters say he has stabilised Egypt and needs more time to reform and develop the economy.
Critics fear the constitutional changes will shrink any remaining space for political competition and debate, paving the way for a long period of one-man rule.
(Reporting by Lena Masri and Nayera Abdallah, writing by Lena Masri and Sami Aboudi; Editing by Gareth Jones and Lisa Shumaker)