Voters offered rides, food in Egypt referendum on el-Sissi

CAIRO (AP) — Egyptian pro-government media, business people and activists urged a “yes” vote Sunday on constitutional changes that would allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to stay in power until 2030. Some voters were offered free rides or food parcels to increase turnout in the national referendum.

Critics have blasted the constitutional changes as a major step in the return to authoritarian rule, eight years after President Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising.

El-Sissi led the military overthrow of an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013 and has since presided over an unprecedented crackdown on dissent. Authorities have arrested thousands of people, including many prominent pro-democracy activists, and rolled back freedoms won in 2011.

Sunday marked the second of three days of voting. The referendum is virtually certain to result in a “yes” vote, but the government hopes for strong turnout to lend it legitimacy. Election officials have said results are expected within a week.

Yasser Rizq, chairman of the state-owned al-Akhbar daily and an el-Sissi confidant, portrayed the referendum as a show of support for the general-turned-president.

“People are taking part to say ‘Yes’ for el-Sissi to extend his current term until 2024 and allow him to run for another six-year term,” Rizq wrote in his Sunday column.

Abdel Mohsen Salama, the chairman of the state-owned al-Ahram media organization, urged people to vote as an “urgent necessity.”

Pro-government business people and lawmakers meanwhile offered incentives to voters.

In Cairo’s neighborhood of Kit Kat, buses hired by lawmakers transported people free of charge to a polling center.

In two polling centers in Cairo, some voters were being handed bags of food staples — like oil, rice and sugar — after they cast their ballots. The practice is common in Egypt’s elections and referendums, both before and since 2011.

The National Council for Human Rights, a state-appointed body, also reported people giving food to voters, and said cars with signs advertising political parties could be seen transporting people to voting centers. Trucks with loudspeakers drove around central Cairo Sunday morning, playing patriotic songs and urging people to vote.

Opposition voices have largely been shut out amid the rush to hold the referendum. Parliament, packed with el-Sissi supporters, overwhelmingly approved the amendments on Tuesday. The local media is dominated by government supporters.

El-Sissi was elected president in 2014 and re-elected last year after all potentially serious challengers were either jailed or pressured to exit the race.

“The situation is backsliding,” said Ahmed Abd Rabou, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Denver. He said Egypt is replicating a “totalitarian” system “where the president can run forever and can stay in power forever.”