CAIRO — Egypt's new constitution was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum, state media reported on Thursday, an expected victory that nudges army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ever closer to a bid for the presidency.
The vote advances a transition plan the army unveiled after deposing Islamist president Mohammed Morsi last July. The next step is expected to be a presidential election for which Sisi, 59, appears the only serious candidate.
Some 90 percent of the people who voted approved the constitution, state-run media reported. Al-Ahram, the state's flagship newspaper, said the constitution was approved by an "unprecedented majority," citing early results.
The constitution won wide support among the many Egyptians who backed the army's removal of Morsi. There was little trace of a "no" campaign as the state pressed a crackdown on dissent.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood had called for a boycott, seeing the vote as part of a coup that deposed a leader freely elected 18 months ago and revived an oppressive police state.
An Interior Ministry official said turnout appeared to be more than 55 percent. It was the first vote held since Morsi was overthrown following the June 30 mass protests against his rule.
A decree is expected within days setting the date for presidential and parliamentary elections, Al-Ahram reported. The official result is expected to be announced on Saturday.
The Islamists' opponents pointed to the result as proof of a popular mandate for the removal of Morsi. "The Egyptians write the Brotherhood's death certificate," Al-Youm Al-Sabea, a privately owned newspaper, declared on its front page.
The Brotherhood had called for protests during the voting. Nine people were killed on the first day of voting in clashes between its supporters and security forces. The Interior Ministry said 444 people were arrested during the two-day vote.
The authorities, who have billed the transition plan as a path to democracy, have also jailed moderate Islamists and secular-minded activists in recent weeks, including prominent figures in the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak.
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The referendum has been seen as a public vote of confidence in Sisi, widely viewed as the most powerful figure in Egypt and the man needed to restore stability.
Sisi appeared to link a possible presidential bid to the outcome of the vote, saying on Saturday he would need the support of the nation and the army to run.
The stock market has rallied to three-year highs this week, driven partly by hopes for more stable government.
But the country has also seen the bloodiest internal strife in its modern history since Morsi's ouster. Bombings, attacks on security forces and bloody street violence occur regularly.
The government declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization on Dec. 25. The group, outlawed for most of its 85-year life, says it remains committed to peaceful protest.
A Sisi presidency would turn back the clock to the days when the post was controlled by military men and could kill off any hope of a political accommodation with the Islamist opposition.
"You could see the re-emergence of a domineering president," said Nathan Brown, a professor of political science at George Washington University and an expert on Egyptian affairs.
The constitution was drafted by a 50-member committee appointed by decree. It deletes controversial Islamist-inspired provisions written into the basic law approved when Morsi was still in office, and strengthens the state bodies that defied him: the army, the police and the judiciary.
At many polling stations, the referendum appeared to be a vote on Sisi himself. Women chanted his name and ululated as they stood in line to vote, while a pro-army song popularized after Morsi's overthrow blared from cars.
The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies criticized Egyptian media for "stoking hatred towards the Brotherhood" and contributing to a climate of intimidation.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington warned that international players risked lending legitimacy to a "flawed and undemocratic progress."
While Western states have criticized the crackdown and called for inclusive politics, they have put little pressure on Cairo. Egypt, which controls the Suez Canal, 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.
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