Egyptian turnout high in first post-Mubarak vote

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 19, 2011 

CAIRO — Millions of Egyptians voted Saturday on proposed changes to the constitution, celebrating the first polls since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak and getting a close look at the forces competing for Egypt's future.

Turnout figures weren't available by late Saturday, but the huge flood of voters forced an extension of the voting time to 9 p.m.

Whether for or against the proposed amendments, Egyptians were overjoyed at what they considered their first real vote, discounting the decades of rigged polls under Mubarak. Some voters sobbed with happiness, and passersby offered water and sweets to people standing in lines that stretched for blocks. Families brought their children to witness the historic day.

"You can see the look in their eyes, watch their discipline, it's amazing. It's the changing of a whole society," said Mohamed el Anan, 60, a banker. "People feeling free to say 'yes' or 'no' — that's the whole point."

On the surface, the questions in the referendum boil down to: How fast should Egypt's military hand over the country to a civilian authority? Voting yes would approve the hastily drafted amendments and pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections soon. Voting no would mean scrapping the old constitution and starting fresh with broad input, a time-consuming task that surely would extend military rule.

The underlying question of the referendum, however, points to an imminent power struggle between Islamists and Egyptians who seek a civil state.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group and by far the best-organized bloc in the country, would benefit from quick elections against loosely organized political factions that gelled during the 18-day revolution that began on Jan. 25. There's also concern that a "yes" vote boosts the Brotherhood's nemesis, Mubarak's formerly ruling National Democratic Party, which seeks to regroup.

Brotherhood supporters launched a grassroots campaign to convince voters that a "yes" vote was a religious duty to protect the constitution's Article 2, which names Islam as the religion of the state. If voters choose to nullify the old constitution and start anew, the debate over whether to include the article is sure to bog down the drafting process.

Amal Mohamed, 42, a housewife who wears the full facial veil known as niqab, said she turned to newspapers and TV programs to study the pros and cons of the amendments. In the end, she said, she was persuaded that voting in favor of the changes was tantamount to a vote for Islam.

"That was the only reason I voted 'yes,'" she said. "We are Muslims, so our country should be Muslim."

In online forums, some voters said they'd encountered people who said they were paid to vote in favor of the amendments, but there were no reports of large-scale fraud of the type that has marred previous Egyptian elections. Still, a McClatchy reporter witnessed clear violations of election rules.

At one polling center in Cairo, an old woman stumbled in and announced to the room that she didn't understand how to vote. A man from the crowd showed her on the ballot where to mark "yes," without asking the woman how she wished to vote. "OK, you've voted," he told her.

Another polling place, not far from the pyramids of Giza, was tucked down an alleyway filled with trash piles and feral cats. At the entrance to the balloting room, an unidentified man stood at the door, badgering each voter to mark "yes" on the ballot.

"Vote yes, God willing! Vote yes for Islam!" he shouted.

"OK, OK, we're voting yes, just be quiet," one woman snapped.

"Vote 'yes' and get 100 pounds!" a man in line added, cracking a joke about rumors of vote buying.

The treatment of Egypt's elites at polling centers was another telling sign of a new Egypt, where the old class lines have blurred.

Voters kicked out the governor of Cairo when he tried to cut the line to cast his ballot, according to local news accounts. Al Masry al Youm, an independent daily, reported that voters chanted, "Those times are behind us!" as they forced Gov. Abdel Azim Wazir out of the polling center.

A group of angry men pelted the Nobel laureate and presidential contender Mohammed ElBaradei with rocks as he arrived at another polling place, according to news reports. The attackers smashed his windows and forced him to flee before voting. ElBaradei later said on Twitter that the attack was the work of "organized thugs." ElBaradei was among several high-profile figures to endorse a "no" vote.

The Muslim Brotherhood condemned the attack in a statement that called the incident "uncivilized and disgraceful."

Many Egyptians were dismayed at the incident, fearing it would overshadow an otherwise peaceful day of voting. Others offered less sympathy, saying they resented ElBaradei's attempts to lead Egypt after residing abroad for several years.

"Baradei didn't live in Egypt, he didn't eat in Egypt, his children didn't go to Egyptian schools. So why should he be the president of Egypt?" said Ahmed Abdelghani, 34, a taxi driver.

The amendments on the ballot relax the rules of political candidacy and limit executive powers — changes that activists across the spectrum have demanded for years.

The most notable changes include: four-year presidential term limits, full judicial oversight of elections, curbing emergency laws, more room for independent candidates and the abolishment of "terrorism" laws that were used under Mubarak to bypass civilian courts and justify open-ended detentions with no judicial involvement. The reforms appeared on the ballot as a package, so the vote was for all or none.

Egyptians snapped cellphone photos of themselves as they held up their fingers to show the pink dye that signals they'd voted. For the first time, any Egyptian with a valid national ID card could vote at any polling place in the country. The indelible dye is designed to prevent voters from casting more than one ballot.

Mustafa Sabry, a 27-year-old tour guide, stood in line to vote alongside a Coptic priest wearing a heavy cross pendant, a few bearded Islamists and clean-shaven bank tellers who'd just finished their shift and arrived in matching starched white shirts and ties. Sabry gestured to his fellow voters, pointing out the diversity.

"The culture of elections is unfamiliar to us," he said. "But we can work together."

(Special correspondent Mohannad Sabry contributed to this article.)

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