Egypt votes in key constitution referendum
Cairo, December 22, 2012
Egyptians voted on a constitution drafted by Islamists on Saturday in a second round of balloting expected to approve the charter that opponents say will create deeper turmoil in Egypt.
After a first round last week in which unofficial results showed 57 percent of those who voted approved the constitution, the opposition cried foul, saying a litany of alleged abuses meant the first stage of the referendum should be re-run.
But the committee overseeing the two-stage vote said their investigations showed no major irregularities in voting on December 15, which covered about half of Egypt's 51 million eligible voters.
Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Mursi, who was elected in June, say the constitution is vital to moving Egypt towards democracy two years after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising. They say it will help restore the stability needed to fix an economy that is on the ropes.
If the basic law is passed, a parliamentary election will be held in about two months.
However, the opposition says the constitution is divisive and accuses Mursi of pushing through a document that favors his Islamist allies and ignores the rights of Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, as well as women.
"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," said Karim Nahas, 35, a stock market broker, heading to a polling station in Giza, a province included in this round of voting which covers parts of greater Cairo.
Polling stations opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT) though voting could be extended as it was last week. Queues formed at some polling stations around the country.
Unofficial tallies are likely to emerge within hours of the close, but the referendum committee may not declare an official result for the two rounds until Monday, after hearing appeals.
Shahinaz Shalaby, a housewife, said she would be voting "yes" even though she disagreed with some clauses. "We feel our voice matters," she said, adding that a "yes" vote would not stop protests but "then it will stabilize afterwards".
Cairo districts covered in the first round voted "no", but overall the vote in that round was in favor.
Analysts expect another "yes" vote on Saturday because it covers rural and other areas seen as having more Islamist sympathizers. Islamists may also be able to count on many Egyptians who are simply exhausted by two years of turmoil.
But, even if it is approved, the opposition say it is a recipe for trouble since the charter has not received broad consensus backing from the population. They say the result may go in Mursi's favor but will not be the result of a fair vote.
"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.
Citing what he said were "serious violations" on the first day of voting, he said anger against Mursi and his Islamist allies was growing: "People are not going to accept the way they are dealing with the situation."
At least eight people were killed in protests outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. Islamists and rivals clashed on Friday in the second biggest city of Alexandria, hurling stones at each other. Two buses were torched.
Mohamed Beltagy, a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that propelled Mursi to elected office, said the constitution was crucial to holding a parliamentary election and setting up the essential institutions of state.
"What is the catastrophe of this constitution?" he asked the assembly which drafted the document, during a sitting on Friday that was called to challenge opposition criticism of the text.
Opponents, who had earlier quit the drafting assembly saying their voices were not heard, were invited but stayed away.
The vote was staggered after many judges refused to supervise the vote, meaning there were not enough to hold the referendum on a single day nationwide.
The first round was won by a slim enough margin to buttress opposition arguments that the text was divisive. Opponents who include liberals, leftists, Christians and more moderate-minded Muslims accuse Islamists of using religion to sway voters.
"The problem is not whether the majority approves, it is that they rallied the people in the name of the religion," said Mustafa Shuman, who is among dozens of people who have been camped outside Mursi's palace in Cairo in protest.
Islamists, who have won successive ballots since Mubarak's overthrow albeit by narrowing margins, dismiss charges that they are exploiting religion and say the document reflects the will of a majority in the country where most people are Muslim.-Reuters