The charter is an overhaul of an Islamist-backed constitution adopted in December 2012 during the rule of Mohamed Mursi, the deposed president, and his Muslim Brotherhood. Drafted by a 50-member panel of mostly secular politicians, it criminalises discrimination, enshrines gender equality and guarantees a series of freedoms and rights.
And crucially, the vote – which runs today and tomorrow – provides the country’s increasingly popular military chief, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, with a first electoral test since he removed Mursi in a military coup on 3 July last year.
A comfortable “yes” vote and a respectable turnout would be seen as bestowing legitimacy, while undermining the Islamists’ argument that Mursi remains the nation’s elected president.
Makram Mohammed Ahmed, an analyst and columnist who is close to the military, said: “It is not just a referendum on the constitution. It is on many things, including el-Sisi and the fight against violence by militants.
“I cannot imagine that a big ‘yes’ majority will automatically usher in a new legitimacy that will be swiftly recognised by the West, but it is a good constitution that must be given its due.”
With the stakes so high, authorities are planning a massive security operation to protect polling stations and voters. The deployment involves 160,000 soldiers, including elite paratroopers and commandos backed by armoured vehicles and helicopters. More than 200,000 police officers will also participate.
Troops are being stationed at airports around the country to be flown to sites of possible militant attacks at short notice. Military aircraft will be used to monitor rarely-used desert routes to major cities, to stop the infiltration of militants.
Snipers will be deployed at secret locations close to polling stations. Provinces that witness major outbreaks of violence will be sealed off from the rest of the country until it is contained.
The charter adopted under Mursi won some 64 per cent of the vote on a low turnout of about 30 per cent – partly caused by the then-opposition calling for a boycott of the vote.
This week, it is the Muslim Brotherhood and its backers who are urging a boycott.
Their argument is that the entire process, beginning with the coup, is illegitimate, and they are planning mass demonstrations.
The group has honed its mobilisation tactics in the 85 years since its inception, winning more than 40 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections held in late 2011 and early 2012.
However, it is difficult to predict how effective the boycott will be, given that most of the Brotherhood’s top and mid-level leaders are either in jail or on the run. The government’s recent move to label the group a terrorist organisation has in effect meant that mere membership can bring a lengthy jail sentence.
“The arrests have left entire provinces without a local leadership,” said Mohammed, a Brotherhood activist in southern Egypt, a stronghold of Islamists. “We are heavily relying on sympathetic students, sisters and workers to lobby for a ‘no’ vote.”
To help ensure strong turnout, wealthy businessmen have been asked by local officials to fund the transport of poor voters to polling stations. The government has also decreed that voters can cast their ballots wherever they happen to be, rather than in the districts where they are registered.
While sure to boost turnout, the move also raises the possibility of fraud. The government has said a fraud conviction will mean a jail sentence.
Since Mursi’s removal, Gen Sisi has remained silent on whether he would run for president, but on Saturday, he moved closer to announcing his candidacy.
Addressing a crowd of military officers, police commanders, politicians, artists and writers, Gen Sisi said he would run if he received a popular mandate to do so. “I cannot turn my back on Egypt,” he said.
The vote will also show how much influence supporters of fallen autocrat Hosni Mubarak retain after throwing their weight behind Mursi’s removal and the roadmap announced by Gen Sisi in July, which includes presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.