Egyptian election

Egyptian polling station officials count ballots in Cairo on Thursday at the end of the second day of voting in a referendum on a new constitution. (Khaled Desouki / Agence France-Presse / Getty Images / January 15, 2014)

CAIRO -- In a lopsided margin reminiscent of elections held during ex-dictator Hosni Mubarak’s decades of rule, unofficial results on Thursday indicated that Egypt’s new constitution was approved by nearly 98% of voters.

The military-backed interim government had campaigned vigorously for approval of the rewritten charter, casting it as a mandate on its six months in power. The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement of deposed President Mohamed Morsi, had called for a boycott of the two-day vote.

State media, citing unofficial tallies released by 26 of Egypt’s 27 governorates -- roughly equivalent to counties -- reported a turnout of just over 36%. That would just barely surpass the nearly one-third of eligible voters who cast ballots in the previous constitutional referendum, held during Morsi’s tenure. Some officials had voiced hopes for a much bigger turnout.

The unofficial count did not yet include the governorate of North Sinai, where army troops and police have been battling an Islamist insurgency, but the tally did include Cairo, the country’s main population center.

The new charter rolled back overtly Islamist provisions written into the constitution under Morsi, but enhanced the powers of security forces and the judiciary, which have been the driving force behind the interim government’s bid to crush the Brotherhood. The movement was declared a terrorist organization last month, and thousands of its followers have been killed or jailed.

With political dissent in Egypt having become extremely perilous, staying away from the polls was the only means available to most Egyptians for expressing opposition. Gen. Abdel-Fattah Sisi, the military chief who is essentially running the country, said prior to the balloting that he would take a strong affirmative vote as a sign of the people’s will that he run for president.

Those who disapproved of the charter or Sisi were largely silent in the run-up to the vote. A tough law that took effect two months ago bans street protests not approved in advance by authorities. Prior to this week’s two-day referendum, police arrested at least seven people for putting up posters urging a no vote on the constitution.

Pro-Brotherhood media outlets have long since been shut down, and nearly three weeks ago three journalists for the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera English were jailed. Formal charges were filed against them Thursday, the official Middle East News Agency said, including making false reports to disturb the public order.

[Updated 1:12 p.m. Jan. 16: However, an Al Jazeera spokesman later said the three journalists had not yet been formally charged and had not confessed to any charges. 

“The accusations against our journalists do not stand up to scrutiny," said the spokesman, Osama Saeed.]

Al Jazeera has said they did nothing wrong and has demanded their release. One of the three is Egyptian Canadian; another, Peter Greste, is an Australian national.

Also Wednesday, a freelance cameraman working for the Associated Press was detained after AP footage appeared on Al Jazeera’s Egyptian affiliate, which broadcasts from Qatar, the news agency reported.

At polling places on Tuesday and Wednesday, voters expressed near-unanimous support for the constitution and for Sisi, sometimes approaching Western journalists to vent anger over perceived U.S. support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi -- a narrative advanced in state media in the months following his ouster in July.

“We don’t care what Obama wants!” one man shouted. “We want Sisi!”

The Obama administration cut hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid after a violent crackdown against followers of the Brotherhood, but lawmakers were expected to reinstate the aid in a vote on Friday.

Egypt’s Health Ministry said Thursday that 13 people had died during the two days of balloting, some in clashes with security forces and some in fighting between pro- and anti-Morsi forces.

After the conclusion of balloting, the chief spokesman for Egypt’s military, Col. Ahmed Ali, hailed the vote as a “epic” achievement for the Egyptian people. Tens of thousands of police and soldiers were deployed to watch over the balloting, but there were no major security breaches.

Twitter: @laurakingLAT

laura.king@latimes.com

Special correspondent Amro Hassan contributed to this report.