Egyptians vote on final day of constitutional referendum

Under a heavy military presence and in an increasingly volatile atmosphere, Egyptians voted on the second and final day of the country’s constitutional referendum.

Although Wednesday’s vote appeared to have been more peaceful than Tuesday’s, when at least 11 people died in security crackdowns against protesters and hundreds were arrested, there were localised anti-government protests and hundreds more arrests, local media reported.

Much emphasis has been placed on the symbolic nature of the new constitution, with voters describing it as a “break with the past” and a way of “moving Egypt forward” from the tumultuous last three years of revolution, protests, elections and deadly security crackdowns.

And while the outcome of the referendum is bound to be a resounding “yes” given the military-backed interim government has campaigned hard for its acceptance and has arrested anyone trying to promote a “no” vote, the all-important voter turnout figure remains unknown.

In the lush, green agricultural city of Fayoum, about two hours south of Cairo, many of the polling stations were only receiving a trickle of voters, although the judge in one centre was quick to assure Fairfax Media the turnout would pick up later in the day.

As plain-clothes local police armed with shotguns stood with soldiers to “safeguard” the voting centres, the ubiquitous pro-military song Teslam al-Ayadi blared from roadside speakers as locals arrived to cast their vote.

All were positive about the constitution although not many were familiar with the detail of the 247-article document.

University student Samah, 18, of the few young people Fairfax Media observed voting over the two-day poll, was enthusiastic about the referendum, saying the constitution was “the right fit for me” and “a big improvement” on the constitution offered up by the deposed Muslim Brotherhood-backed president Mohamed Mursi.

Although Islam remains the official state religion, the new constitution enshrines freedom of belief and gives some protection to religious minorities as well as banning religious-based political parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.

It guarantees “equality between men and women”, but in a move deeply criticised by human rights groups it allows the military to appoint the country’s defence minister for the next eight years and provides for civilians to be tried in military courts for certain crimes.

Dr Mursi, who has been in prison since the military forced him from office and appointed an interim government following mass public protests on July 3 last year, signed his own fate when he sought and won sweeping new executive powers in Egypt’s last constitutional referendum in December 2012.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has been decimated by months of mass arrests of its leaders and a violent crackdown on its supports that resulted in at least 1000 deaths, boycotted the poll, as did several moderate groups such as the April 6 Movement.

But one election observer who did not want to be identified said a resounding endorsement of the constitution is the only likely outcome.

Struggling to be heard over the military helicopters constantly buzzing the skies over Cairo, he said: “the voting looks like it has gone mostly smoothly, but the idea that people could vote freely either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ is impossible to believe in this climate.”

Amid the traffic chaos of the sprawling 6th of October City, street hawkers ducked between cars selling posters and large stickers featuring the defence minister and military leader General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who has hinted he views an endorsement of the constitution as a mandate to run for president.

Banners advocating a yes vote adorn prominent buildings and billboards all over Cairo and at some polling stations spontaneous celebrations broke out as supporters of General Sisi danced and ululated after they had cast their vote.

International election monitors such as the US-based Carter Centre have been so concerned at the darkening political mood in Egypt that they have only sent a small group of experts to observe the referendum.

They cited particular concerns about “the polarised environment and the narrowed political space … as well as the lack of an inclusive process for drafting and publicly debating the draft constitution”.

Around 80 international observers from Democracy International were in Egypt to monitor the referendum as well as several other non-government organisations who also sent small teams.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information reported witnessing attempts to prompt voters towards the "yes" as well as the "no" votes at polling stations, while the Judges' Club committee assigned to observe the voting process announced it received 51 complaints nationwide at the close of the first day of voting, local media reported.

There were no figures on voter turnout at the time of publication, although local media suggested a figure of 28 per cent for the first day of the poll – lower than the 32 per cent who came to vote in December 2012.

The polls were expected to close at 9pm local time.

The story Egyptians vote on final day of constitutional referendum first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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