BEIRUT

Middle East

Focus on Sisi as Egypt votes on constitution

  • An Egyptian man holds a portrait of Egypt's Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi outside a polling station during the vote on a new constitution on January 14, 2014 in Giza, Cairo. (AFP PHOTO/MAHMOUD KHALED)

CAIRO: Egyptians voted Tuesday for the first time since the military ousted President Mohammad Morsi on a draft constitution that may set the stage for a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

At least 11 people were killed in confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police, official sources said. Two small bombs went off, one in Cairo and one in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla, injuring no one.

The Brotherhood, still backing Morsi, has called for a boycott and protests over the draft, which deletes Islamic language written into the basic law approved a year ago when he was still in office. It also strengthens state bodies that defied him: the army, the police and the judiciary.

While a state crackdown has erased many freedoms won by the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, anticipation of more stable government Tuesday sent the stock market to its highest level since his downfall. The main index exceeded its January 2011 peak, in its fourth straight gain.

The referendum is a milestone in the political transition plan the army-backed government has billed as a path back to democracy even as it presses a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s best organised party until last year.

A presidential election could follow as early as April.

Echoing a view widely held in Egypt, a senior European diplomat said Sisi would probably announce his candidacy in the next few days – a prospect that will delight supporters but could stir more conflict with his Islamist opponents.

With little or no sign of a campaign against the draft – one moderately Islamist party says its activists were arrested while campaigning for a no-vote – it is expected to pass easily.

Sisi ousted Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected head of state, last July. His Islamist opponents say he is the mastermind of a coup that kindled the worst internal strife in Egypt’s modern history and revived an oppressive police state.

But after a failed experiment with democracy, many are weary of the upheaval that has gripped this nation of 85 million and shattered its economy. They see Sisi, 59, as someone who can stabilize and protect Egypt from what local media depict as foreign and domestic conspiracies to divide the nation.Sisi, dressed in desert-colored fatigues and wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, inspected a polling station after voting began. The two-day vote ends Wednesday.

Brotherhood supporters staged protests in at least four cities. Police arrested 65 Brotherhood supporters who were trying to obstruct voting, security officials said.

The bloodiest clashes were in Sohag, south of Cairo, and in Giza on the outskirts of the capital, the Health Ministry said in an emailed statement.

Local officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said four Brotherhood supporters were killed in Sohag and more than 20 wounded, in addition to three policemen. But the Interior Ministry said Brotherhood supporters had killed four people and wounded nine more, including a police officer, when they opened fire on passers-by to stop them reaching polling stations, the state news agency reported.

Four people were also killed in clashes in Giza, two of whom were shot dead in the village of Kerdasa, a bastion of Islamist support. Security sources identified them as Brotherhood supporters. A man was also killed in Beni Suef, south of Cairo.

Egypt has been a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East since the 1970s, when it became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel. The U.S. Congress’ new spending bill would restore more than $1.5 billion in military and economic aid to Egypt, largely cut off after Morsi’s ouster, but would make the funding conditional on Egypt taking steps toward restoring democracy.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 15, 2014, on page 1.
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Summary

Egyptians voted Tuesday for the first time since the military ousted President Mohammad Morsi on a draft constitution that may set the stage for a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

At least 11 people were killed in confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police, official sources said.

Brotherhood supporters staged protests in at least four cities. Police arrested 65 Brotherhood supporters who were trying to obstruct voting, security officials said.

Security sources identified them as Brotherhood supporters.


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