A divided Egypt cast first votes on its constitution

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 15, 2012 

Mideast Egypt

An Egyptian man displays his finger marked with ink after casting a vote in a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi in Cairo


— Egyptians endorsed a controversial, Islamist-backed constitution after the first day of voting, but without the support of the capital, according to initial results, raising new doubts that it could bring stability to an increasingly polarized Egypt.

According to newspaper tallies of the votes, 56 percent of Egyptians in the ten governorates who voted Saturday endorsed the constitution. But in Cairo, 57 percent rejected it. The vote continues Dec. 22 when the remaining 17 governorates are scheduled to vote.

The vote appeared to be as much a referendum on Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the party through which Morsi ascended to the presidency, as the constitution itself.

Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood heralded the new document as the pathway to stability. But the opposition groups – Christians, secularists, liberals and moderates – called it divisive and unrepresentative.

Where voters were once festive and exuberant to take part in past elections, on Saturday the crowds were weary, even those embracing the constitution. This was Egypt’s third election this year and with each vote, the country has only become more divided.

And since the constitutional assembly hastily passed the document earlier this month, nine Egyptians have died in protests, the deadliest political crisis since Morsi’s June election.

There were accusations throughout the day of judges swaying voters, vote rigging, supporters outside telling voters who to choose and voters already listed as having cast ballots when they had not.

There were fewer election monitors Saturday as international groups did not have enough time to send representatives, and opposition groups hurriedly looked for volunteers, creating a cloud of doubt over the process.

The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said it had received complaints of “tens of violations.”

Voters stood in long lines as many judges boycotted the process, leading to fewer polling stations. Some accused their opponents of impropriety. Others expressed little hope that the proposed constitution would be an enduring document.

Supporters called it flawed, but the starting point for a stable government. Many said they embraced it because it included provisions that allowed parliament to make changes.

Anwar Ahmed, 50, had several blue checks on her hand to remind her to mark the blue circle on the ballot for “yes,” even though she had not read it.

“I want the country to move on,” Ahmed said. “I don’t want to wait for another year. My son read the constitution and he says that it has a lot of good things.”

While this vote was arguably the most important Egyptians have faced, they also seemed the least educated about the choices. Many said they had not read the document. Some said they thought they were voting for the president again.

Others, meanwhile, asked the judge monitoring the process who they should vote for. Still others did not know what would happen if the referendum failed.

At polling stations, those who once stood at rival protests for the past two weeks were suddenly standing side by side in the same line. In the northern middle class neighborhood of Shobra, 30-year-old friends and neighbors Instasar Abdel Fadel, 49, and Zainab Mohammed, 40, bickered on the way to the polling station and all the way back home.

Fadel supported the constitution; Mohammed did not.

Up until the election they would shout at each from facing balconies. The disagreement continued all the way into the voting booth.

“I want stability. We have to have something,” said Fadel, who voted for Morsi in the presidential election. “We want better circumstances for our country and-”

“How can you say that?” interrupted Mohammed, who did not let her finish her thought, and who voted for Morsi rival Ahmed Shafik in the election. “Who brought these circumstances to us? What has Morsi done?”

But Mohammed could not say what she wanted to happen if the constitution was voted down and if she was willing to wait another year for a new constitutional assembly to rewrite the document.

“You don’t even understand why you are voting no!” Fadel said.

Even judges monitoring the election and eventually in charge of following the constitution if it passes were dubious that the document could last.

Judge Bassem al Farouk, who was monitoring elections in Shobra, said the 236-page document was too long and too vague to be a proper contract between the people and their government.

“It will be very difficult to follow,’ he said.

Because of the shortage of judges, voting was extended over two Saturdays so those willing to participate could monitor polling stations. On Saturday, ten governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria voted; next Saturday, the remaining 17 will vote. In between Egyptians will learn the preliminary results.

The current crisis began Nov. 22, when Morsi declared that his decisions could not be reviewed by the country’s judges. It continued when the constitutional assembly, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, hastily completed a draft document before a court ruling could have dissolved the assembly. Morsi quickly approved the document and the referendum.

After several demonstration and counter-demonstrations, the crisis reached its most violent moments Wednesday when rival protesters set upon one another with rocks, firebombs and gunshots outside the presidential palace, killing nine.

Ismail is a McClatchy special correspondent

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