CAIRO - 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 turn out, and the percentage of Yes 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. Seven months after Morsi's fall, the country remains bitterly divided between his Islamist supporters and the millions of people.
who had taken to the streets demanding his resignation.
More than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have died in street clashes since then and thousands of Morsi's supporters have been imprisoned, but the Islamists continue near daily rallies for his return.
Amid the crackdown, militants have escalated a campaign in the restive Sinai peninsula and elsewhere that has killed scores of soldiers and policemen in bombing and shooting attacks.
The government, and Sisi himself, have called for a massive turn out in the referendum, amid fears that further violence will keep many voters at home.
On Saturday, Sisi urged voters to turn out "in force", pledging at a conference that the army would protect them. The military had said it would deploy 160,000 soldiers to guard about 30,000 polling stations.
Sisi also came closest to confirming presidential ambitions, saying he required "popular demand" to nominate himself.
"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 feels he "would not have the luxury or choice" to stand aside in the election if there is a palpable demand for him.
Analysts say the government, whose legitimacy is still 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, which authorities presenting each referendum as a vote for stability.
The newest draft has done away with much of the Islamist-inspired wording in the constitution passed under Morsi, and still allows the military to try civilians who attack it.
"In a way people aren't really being asked to go vote for a document, they are being asked to go give their approval to the July regime," said Andrew Hammond, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
"There are people on the street almost every day saying they don't agree with what happened on July 3," he said of protesters who oppose his overthrow on that date.
"They need a clear public vote of confidence that would then allow Sisi to stand up and run for president if he decided to," he added.
Backers of the constitution are hoping for at least a 70 percent vote in favour of the constitution as a satisfying majority.
Morsi's heavily Islamist influenced constitution passed with 64 percent of the vote, with a turnout of barely 33 percent of the country's 53 million voters.