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Egypt votes on changes that would allow President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to rule until 2030

Cairo -- Egyptians voted Saturday on constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to stay in power until 2030 and broaden the military's role -- changes blasted by critics as another major step toward authoritarian rule.

The referendum comes amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in recent years. El-Sisi's government has arrested thousands of people, most of them Islamists but also prominent secular activists. He has also rolled back freedoms won in a 2011 pro-democracy uprising.

Outside a polling center near the Giza Pyramids, around two dozen people, mostly elderly women, lined up waiting to cast their votes. Haja Khadija, a 63-year-old housewife, said she came for the "security and stability" of the country. "We love el-Sisi. He did lots of things. He raised our pensions."

Casting his ballot on Saturday, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly urged voters to turn out in high numbers and said voting will reflect "the atmosphere of stability and democracy that we are witnessing now."

The state-run TV said el-Sisi had casted his vote in Cairo's Heliopolis district, nearby the presidential palace.

Egypt holds referendum on draft constitutional amendments
A man shows his ink-stained finger at a polling station, during the referendum on draft constitutional amendments, in Cairo, Egypt, April 20, 2019. AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS

Since early April, the Egyptian capital has been awash with large posters and banners encouraging people to vote in favor of the changes. Most of the posters were apparently funded by pro-government parties, businessmen and lawmakers. 

Opposition voices, meanwhile, have largely been shut out amid the rush to hold the referendum. 

Parliament, packed with el-Sisi supporters, overwhelmingly approved the amendments on Tuesday, with only 22 no votes and one abstention from 554 lawmakers in attendance. The national electoral commission announced the following day that voting would begin on Saturday. 

The referendum comes eight years after a pro-democracy uprising ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak's three-decade rule, and nearly six years after el-Sisi led a popular military overthrow of the country's first freely elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi. 

The amendments extend a president's term in office from four to six years and allow for a maximum of two terms. But they also include an article specific to el-Sisi that extends his current second four-year term to six years and allows him to run for another six-year term in 2024 -- potentially extending his rule until 2030. 

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi attends a signing ceremony following his talks with Russian President in Sochi on October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin / AFP/Getty Images

The amendments also allow the president to appoint top judges and bypass judiciary oversight in vetting draft legislation, while also granting military courts wider jurisdiction in trying civilians.

In the last three years, over 15,000 civilians, including children, have been referred to military prosecution in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch.

The amendments also introduce one or more vice presidents, revive the senate and enshrine a 25 percent quota for women in parliament's lower, legislative chamber. All three had been dropped from Egypt's constitution after the 2011 revolution. 

Egypt holds referendum on draft constitutional amendments
An army soldier stands guard outside a polling station during the referendum on draft constitutional amendments, in Cairo, Egypt, April 20, 2019. AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS
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