CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi’s decision to rush a referendum on a new constitution already has polarized the country, which has been wracked by widespread protests over how the document was drafted.
Now the balloting itself appears likely to heighten those divisions. With just two days to go before Egyptians are to begin voting on the constitution, there are signs that the rushed vote will be marred by irregularities, a shortage of judges and far fewer international monitors than in past elections.
That’s likely to mean that questions about the legitimacy of the vote will exacerbate tensions and lead to more protests and possibly violence. Nine Egyptians died after pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators clashed last week.
On Thursday, the largest opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said it wouldn’t recognize the results if the voting weren’t transparent and “legitimate.” It claimed that it already had found evidence of rigged votes in the international balloting that took place earlier this week, including marked lists suggesting that voters had participated when they had not and polling stations that closed early. The government denied the charges.
The group also insisted on international monitors at polling stations. But to date, the largest groups that have monitored past elections here, including the Carter Center from the United States, have said they don’t have time to prepare. Instead, only Egyptians will monitor the process.
That seemed likely to lead to complaints that the monitors themselves are biased. The Muslim Brotherhood, the group through which Morsi rose to prominence, very likely will have the most monitors. Meanwhile, opposition groups were pleading Thursday for volunteers to register as monitors.
Egyptians spent months preparing for the May and June presidential elections. International monitoring groups took months to help guide and fund the process. But this referendum has been pulled together so fast that the judges who are intended to oversee it are scrambling to figure out what they’re supposed to do.
At the High Elections Commission headquarters Thursday in Cairo, judges who’d come to find out which polling stations they’d been assigned to were told to come back later. Many who did know their assignments said they still hadn’t been given the voter rolls they needed to conduct the elections.
Workers said privately that the elections commission didn’t have enough judges and the vote would be “messy.”
The shortage of judges – thousands are boycotting the referendum to protest Morsi’s decision to give himself absolute judicial authority – forced the government to set two dates for voting so that the judges can be double-tasked.
Egyptians in the nation’s 10 largest governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, will vote Saturday. The rest of the country will consider the constitution on Dec. 22.
The system is likely to contribute to tensions over the referendum’s outcome, with the results of the first day of voting being released before those voting on the second day have cast their ballots. Some already are complaining that will influence how the later voters decide.
Ahmed Abaza, a judge who’s among those who decided to boycott the referendum, decried a process that he said had “no transparency or proper organization.”
That doesn’t mean the process will be rigged, he added. But it does open the constitution to the perception that it will be tainted before it can be implemented.
“This is not a proper process,” Abaza said.
Despite that, the election commission says there are enough judges. Judge Zaqhlaul El Balshy, the commission’s secretary-general, said there would be 6,276 polling stations open Saturday and that there were enough judges for each, as 9,881 judges had agreed to participate.
El Balshy rejected claims that those judges who chose to participate are largely ones who support Morsi and the Brotherhood.
“It will be transparent,” El Balshy said. “Anyone who wants to monitor can monitor. The judges know they must be fair.”
So far, it appears that the army and police are the best prepared. They have plans to secure the polling stations.
The rushed nature of the referendum is the result of a long string of developments stretching back to Morsi’s declaration in November that his decisions were exempt from judicial oversight. The decree was intended to undercut an expected Supreme Constitutional Court ruling that the assembly that was writing a new constitution was illegally constituted.
Morsi had intended for the assembly to work another two months, but the decree sparked an outpouring of protest. Rather than risk an adverse court ruling, the constitutional assembly pushed itself to complete work on the 236-article document in an all-night session before the court could act. Morsi then set the referendum.
That only angered opponents more. Morsi said in a national address last week that if the constitution didn’t pass, he’d call for an election for a new assembly.
That pacified some opponents. But protests by those who support and oppose the constitution are set for Friday, and analysts predict that there will be more such demonstrations after the referendum’s results are known.
Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent.