Egypt will hold a referendum this week on a new constitution, in a vote seen as a test of popularity for Armed Forces Commander-in-Chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he eyes the presidency after ousting former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi.
The military-installed interim government bills the referendum tomorrow and Wednesday as the first of several polls it says will restore elected rule by the end of the year.
The turnout, and the percentage of yes votes, will be monitored by al-Sisi as he decides whether to run for president, military sources say.
Al-Sisi is easily the most popular leader in the country after he toppled the divisive Morsi in July last year, but the Islamist’s followers revile the general for what they call a “coup” against Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president.
Seven months after Morsi’s fall, the country remains bitterly divided between his Islamist supporters and the millions of people who had taken to the streets demanding his resignation.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have died in street clashes since then and thousands of Morsi’s supporters have been imprisoned, but the Islamists continue near daily rallies for his return.
Amid the crackdown, militants have escalated a campaign in the restive Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere that has killed scores of soldiers and policemen in bombing and shooting attacks.
The government, and al-Sisi himself, have called for a massive turnout in the referendum, amid fears that further violence will keep many voters at home.
On Saturday, al-Sisi urged voters to turn out “in force,” pledging at a conference that the army would protect them.
The military had said it would deploy 160,000 soldiers to guard about 30,000 polling stations.
Al-Sisi also came closest to confirming presidential ambitions, saying he required “popular demand” to nominate himself.
“If I nominate myself, there must be a popular demand, and a mandate from my army,” the state newspaper al-Ahram quoted him as saying at the conference with Egyptian officials.
An official close to al-Sisi said a large turnout to approve the constitution would be an “indicator” of whether voters wanted al-Sisi as president.
The official said the general had not made up his mind, but feels he “would not have the luxury or choice” to stand aside in the election if there is a palpable demand for him.
Analysts say the government, whose legitimacy is still in dispute, hopes for a popular stamp of approval in the referendum.
“Not only is this referendum to a certain extent a test of just whether people like the constitution, but also of the post-Morsi order and a new regime in place, and a test of Sisi’s popularity,” International Crises Group North Africa director Issandr El Amrani said.
“It is explicitly being portrayed by the country’s ruling elite as such,” he said.