CAIRO - Egyptian voters have approved a new constitution by 98.1 percent, the elections chief said Saturday, in what the government declared a popular endorsement of the army’s overthrow of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

The result of the Tuesday-Wednesday vote had never been in doubt, as Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists boycotted it, but the authorities wanted a large turnout in the first democratic test since the ouster in July. Electoral commission head Nabil Salib said turnout “reached 38.6 percent” of 53 million registered voters, with only 1.9 percent voting “no.” That turnout proved “that the revolution of June 30 was a popular revolution,” said a senior government official at a press conference to announce the results.

It “refuted the doubts of naysayers,” said Salah el-Din Abdel Sadeq, head of the government’s media arm. The new charter replaces an Islamist-inspired one adopted in a December 2012 referendum under Morsi with about two-thirds of the vote and a 33 percent turnout. The military removed Morsi days after millions of protesters began rallying against him on June 30, setting off months of unrest by his followers who decried what they called a “coup.”

Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who led the overthrow, was monitoring the outcome for an indication of support for a possible presidential bid, military officials said. He is expected to make up his mind now that the results have been announced, with his backers already calling for a rally on January 25 to emphasise their support. Presidential and parliamentary elections have been promised for later this year.

Sisi is wildly popular among the millions who took to the streets against Morsi, but the Islamist’s followers revile him for what they say was a “coup” against Egypt’s first freely elected and civilian president. The now-banned Brotherhood, harried by a deadly crackdown since Morsi’s removal, dismissed the referendum as “farce” and called for further protests. It has called rallies for January 25, the third anniversary of the 2011 uprising that overthrew veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak.

Interior minister Mohamed Ibrahim called for demonstrations the same day to counter an Islamist “plot to spark chaos,” an unusual appeal from the top police official tasked with enforcing a law that restricts protests. More than 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed and thousands imprisoned in a police crackdown on pro-Morsi protests. On Friday, four people were killed in fighting, the health ministry said, as police clamped down on the Islamist rallies.

‘Sisi for presidency’

Many who voted said their ballot was also an endorsement of Sisi, seen as a strong man capable of restoring security after the three years of turmoil following former president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow. Morsi supporters want Sisi tried internationally for crimes against humanity over the deadly crackdown, but the general is adored by his supporters and will face no serious competition if he stands for election.

“If General Sisi nominates himself for president his chances will be great,” presidential aide Ahmed al-Muslimani told the London-based Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper in an interview.

Muslimani said he had spoken with the general a few days before and he had not yet made up his mind, but other officials say his candidacy appears to be a foregone conclusion. In the first test of democracy after Morsi’s overthrow, the run-up to the referendum was marred by arrests of activists who campaigned against the constitution. “There was no real opportunity for those opposed to the government’s roadmap or the proposed constitution to dissent,” said monitoring group Democracy International, which observed the referendum.

The group said its monitors witnessed security forces and campaigning material inside polling stations, but there was “no evidence that such problems substantially affected the outcome of this referendum”. The US administration is closely watching the results of Egypt’s referendum, but has not yet decided whether to unfreeze some $1.5 billion (1.1 billion euros) in aid, the State Department said Thursday. The vote has put the Brotherhood, which the government designated last month as a terrorist group, on the back foot. Morsi himself has been in custody since his ouster and is currently standing trial in the first of three separate cases against him.