Egypt will hold a referendum this week on a new constitution, in a vote seen as a test of popularity for army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as he eyes the presidency after ousting Mohamed Morsi.
The military-installed interim government bills the referendum on Tuesday and Wednesday as the first of several polls it says will restore elected rule by the end of the year.
The turnout, and the percentage of affirmative votes, will be monitored by Sisi as he decides whether to run for president, military sources say.
Sisi is easily the most popular leader in the country after he toppled the divisive Morsi in July, but the Islamist’s followers revile the general for what they call a “coup” against Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president.
The country remains bitterly divided between Morsi’s Islamist supporters and the millions of people who had taken to the streets demanding his resignation.
More than 1000 people, mostly Islamists, have died in street clashes in the past few months and thousands of Morsi’s supporters have been imprisoned, but the Islamists continue rallies for his return.
Militants have escalated a campaign in the restive Sinai Peninsula and elsewhere where scores of soldiers and policemen died in bombing and shooting attacks.
The government, and Sisi, have called for a massive turnout in the referendum, amid fears that violence will keep many voters at home.
On Saturday, Sisi urged voters to turn out “in force”, pledging that the army would protect them.
The military said it would deploy 160,000 soldiers to guard about 30,000 polling stations.
Sisi also came closest to confirming presidential ambitions. “If I nominate myself, there must be a popular demand, and a mandate from my army,” the state newspaper Al-Ahram quoted him as saying at the conference with Egyptian officials.
An official close to Sisi told AFP a large turnout to approve the constitution would be an “indicator” of whether voters wanted Sisi as president.
The official said the general had not made up his mind but felt he “would not have the luxury or choice” to stand aside in the election if there was a palpable demand for him.
Analysts say the government, whose legitimacy is in dispute, hopes for a popular stamp of approval in the referendum.
“Not only is this referendum to a certain extent a test of just whether people like the constitution, but also of the post-Morsi order and a new regime in place, and a test of Sisi’s popularity,” said Issandr El Amrani, North Africa director for the International Crises Group.
“It is explicitly being portrayed by the country’s ruling elite as such,” he said.
According to the government’s timetable, the referendum will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections this year, although it has not yet decided on the order.
Egyptians have been asked to vote on new constitutions or charters three times since the 2011 overthrow of president Hosni Mubarak.