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Egypt approves new muscle to el-Sisi, its strong leader

CAIRO – The lonely protest stood in a wealthy corner of Egypt's capital Sunday, almost an hour's drive from the city square, where tens of thousands had massaged in 2011 to condemn the country's strong leader in the hideous days of the Arab Spring.

Although he had sent a plea on Twitter for others to stay with him, Ahmed Badawy had only one sign to accompany him this time, black marker on the red poster. "No to change the constitution" he had written .

He was quickly arrested.

Egypt has another strong man now, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who tightened his dictatorial grip this week when the Egyptians approved a set of constitutional changes that gave him expansive new powers over the judiciary and parliament while allowing him to remain in place until 2030.

Not surprisingly, for a vote that Mr Sisi and his allies were steered from the beginning, the authorities said Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the vote closed, that the final counter showed that the amendments went 89 percent 11 percent with a turnout of 44 percent.

The result of three-day referendum crystallized what analysts say has become increasingly apparent in recent years: Mr. El-Sisi, 64, builds a brand of authoritarianism that has not only lowered democratic gains in the 2011 uprising, but surpasses Hosni Mubarak's autocracy, the Egyptian leader who was forced from power during rebellion.

"It's worse now than Mubarak," said Elham Eidarous, an activist belonging to the Opposition Bread and Freedom Society. "Anyone who speaks of optimism is either lie or naive because there is nothing optimistic about this situation."

Ms. Eidarous said that Mr El-Sisi, like Mr. Mubarak, had justified the repression and silence of critics by emphasizing the need to keep Egypt stable and secure from terrorists. Mr. El-Sisi has also pursued economic austerity that squeezes the poor and middle class, reminiscent of them. Mubarak gradually introduced during his last 10 years of power.

"It has been for several years now that the gains in 2011 have been lost," said Michele Dunne, director of the Middle East program at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "But I think it only makes it more and more clear to people."

With the result, it was never in doubt this time, the government and its allies were eager to promise, the better the Egyptians did not only agree on the amendments, but enthusiastic.

Voices that were interviewed in working class parts in Cairo said they had been given free boxes of dining grounds such as sugar and cooking oil. In some cases, voters said they were promised small amounts of cash for voting. A hotel, Sonesta, announced a raffle during the referendum: Vote, and you will be entered in a raffle to win a free trip to Mecca – a pilgrimage to be done by all Muslims.

People should only prove that they had voted, not that they had voted yes to receive such benefits. But driving around Cairo within three days of national voting, it was usually hard to tell that there were two sides to the vote.

Banners killed over the streets – including some that police had forced shopkeepers to set up – approved Mr. el-sisi and the constitutional changes. Patriotic songs from well-known singers encouraged voters to vote "do the right thing" and minibuses framed with affirmative green check marks drove them free.

Before and during the vote, the opposition was nowhere to be seen in the Egyptian news media. Opposition sites were blocked and a planned protest against the amendments was canceled by the authorities.

"They do not have to rob polling stations", Timothy E. Kaldas, an analyst at the Washington-based Tahrir Middle East Institute, tweeted before the vote. "They rig the whole media landscape."

The changes also give him greater influence on the country's parliament and the judiciary by giving the power to appoint the top judges and a large part of a new parliament, changes that analysts said threatened Egypt's power distribution.

Mr. El-Sisi, a former general, came to power in a military coup against the country's democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013, by major protests against Mr. Morsi's leadership. (Mr Morsi had also sought and won a referendum on constitutional changes, which critics said unfairly favored his side.) Now during the recent round of change, the military will have more swing in government and politics as the designated "guardian and protector" of the constitution.

The changes constitute a return of Mr. el-Sisi's public promise in 2017 not to seek extension of his mandate. His move to prolong his stay at the office made Mohammad Noaman, 27, uncomfortable enough to vote against the amendments, even though he supported some of the other changes.

"I prefer democratic transitions every four years," said Mr. Noaman, an accountant queuing at a busy polling station in Nasr City Sunday.

Mr. elite s followers began discussing the idea of ​​these constitutional changes after his re-election last year, and the changes were formally introduced at the beginning of February before being discussed in national dialogue meetings, which mainly involved hand-picked followers.

The package passed the Parliament with only a handful of opposite votes last week, just three days before the referendum began.

It is not clear why the changes were pushed through so quickly. Mrs. Dunne said that some analysts believed that Mr. El-Sisi would make changes before his popularity took a further blow from the economic difficulties that many Egyptians feel, or that he capitalizes on favorable signals from the White House, where President Trump recently hosted Mr. el-sisi for a friendly visit.

"I don't know about the effort," said Mr Trump during the two Bureau meetings when he was asked about the constitutional changes. "I can only tell you he's doing a good job."

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