The three-day plebiscite is expected to approve sweeping constitutional changes that will extend President Abdel Fattaj al-Sisi's rule of the Arab world's most populous country until at least 2024
Cairo (AFP) - Egyptians started voting Saturday in a referendum that aims to cement the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the former coup leader who presents himself as a rock of stability in a turbulent region.
Voters were being asked to back amendments to the constitution to allow Sisi, 64, to run for another six-year term while boosting his control over the judiciary and giving the military even greater influence in political life.
At a polling station in Manyal, a Cairo suburb overlooking the Nile, Mohamed Abdel Salam, 45, told AFP he fully supported the changes.
"I don't care about the presidential terms," he said. "Sisi could stay forever as long as he's doing his job... and he has already done a lot."
The three-day referendum bucks the trend of North Africa's renewed uprisings, in which mass pro-democracy protests this month swept away veteran presidents in Algeria and Sudan.
Sisi himself was among the first to vote when polls opened, casting his ballot in the upmarket Cairo suburb of Heliopolis.
In their initial report on the first day of the nationwide electoral process, an international observer team said "there were no hurdles to voting".
The voting period is scheduled to end on April 22 before results are announced five days later.
In Shubra, a working-class neighbourhood of the capital, dozens of voters, mostly women carrying their children, queued outside a polling station in the local high school.
Troops and police were deployed in strength across Cairo, although the interior ministry declined to give any nationwide figures.
Egypt is still battling a hardened Islamic insurgency based in the Sinai Peninsula that has seen attacks in Cairo and other cities.
Sisi has argued that he needs longer to complete the job of restoring security and stability after the turmoil that followed the overthrow of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak in the Arab Spring of 2011.
- Vote 'yes' -
Out on the streets, Sisi's supporters waved flags bearing their campaign motto: "Do the Right" thing, as they pressed passers-by to turn out and vote 'Yes'.
The Egyptian leader won his first term as president in 2014, a year after he led the army in overthrowing elected Islamist president Mohamed Morsi following mass protests against his single turbulent year in power.
Standing virtually unopposed after the disqualification or withdrawal of all realistic challengers, he was re-elected in March 2018 with more than 97 percent.
Both elections drew heavy criticism from human rights groups as they were accompanied by swingeing crackdowns on dissent -- both Islamist and secular.
Human Rights Watch also took issue with the referendum on extending Sisi's rule, saying the "constitutional amendments" would "entrench repression".
In a statement Saturday, the New York-based watchdog criticised the "grossly unfree, rights-abusive environment" of the vote.
For several weeks, Egypt's streets have been awash with banners and billboards urging citizens to vote for Sisi, while popular folk singers have exhorted voters to go to the polls.
Pro-Sisi campaign volunteers handed out boxed meals at four different polling stations in Cairo to voters after they had cast their ballots, AFP reporters said.
A parliamentarian greeted voters and volunteers gave out vouchers the Shubra district for boxes containing staples such as oil, rice, pasta and sugar.
In Manyal, a DJ played loud patriotic music, including a new song by Lebanese diva Nancy Ajram dedicated to Egypt's leader called "Ragel ibn Ragel" (What a fine man).
- 'More autocratic' -
But not everyone was upbeat about the changes.
Sporting casual attire, a voter in his mid-30s told AFP: "We are all staff in the same company and we were instructed by management to go vote.
"I want to say 'No'... on extending the presidential terms and the amendments related to the judiciary," he said, declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.
He pointed to his bosses nearby who were making sure employees were voting.
"Even if I say 'No', they (the authorities) are still going to do what they want in the end," he added despondently.
Earlier in the week, parliament overwhelmingly endorsed the consitutional changes, which also include the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a quota ensuring at least 25 percent of lawmakers are women.
The Soufan Center think-tank said the main effect of the referendum would be to "solidify Sisi's grip on the Egyptian political regime" in a country that "has become even more autocratic than it was under Mubarak".