Egypt's Historic Referendum: Rushed But Moving

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Grace Kassab / AP

Egyptians cast their votes at a polling center in Cairo, March 19, 2011

Sayyed Ahmed Mahmoud clutched his ballot paper in one hand, and leaned on his well-worn walking stick with the other as he shuffled toward the large piece of royal blue cloth nailed across the corner of a scuffed classroom wall that served as a booth. He stood there for several minutes, staring at the green "yes" on one half of the ballot, the black "no" on the other, and then he began to weep. "What's wrong haji," several of the men asked Mahmoud, his brown galabiya and white turban setting him apart from the professors, lawyers and other professionals in Western dress at the Mit Okba school in the middle class Cairo suburb of Mohandiseen. The man with the gray stubble and deeply lined, leathery skin shook his head, then looked up with red-rimmed eyes and smiled broadly. "I'm happy," he said. "I'm just so happy."

Egyptians went to the polls in their millions on Saturday, in a historic referendum to either approve or reject nine constitutional amendments. The vote, which comes just five weeks after long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak was ousted, is about measures to ensure no future president will serve beyond two four-year terms and removes provisions that effectively restricted candidacy to Mubarak's National Democratic Party. Any extension of emergency law beyond six months will also require approval by public referendum, and elections will have judicial oversight.

Still, the provisions fall well short of what many reformists want. Only the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak's regime — the two most well-organized and entrenched players in a political scene crowded with freshly empowered neophytes — are urging a strong "yes" vote, in the hope of brisk parliamentary and presidential elections later this year. If the "no" vote prevails, the military may issue a temporary decree until a new constitution is written, prolonging the transitional period ahead of any new vote.

The day passed peacefully, although presidential hopeful Mohamed Elbaradei tweeted that he was attacked by "organized thugs" as he went to vote. "Car smashed w rocks," he wrote. The former IAEA chief also said that two human rights activists were arrested by the military as they attempted to monitor the voting. But for the most part, there was a festive atmosphere at voting centers.

Results of the referendum were originally expected on Sunday but given the huge turnout, the final count may be delayed. The polls opened at 8 a.m., and by mid-morning, the men's line outside the Mit Okba school extended across Wadi el-Nile Street, around the corner and for several hundred meters up Shehab street. The women's line was considerably shorter.

Osama Ibrahim el-Batawy was halfway in the queue after about an hour, but he, like the thousands of others in the line, said he was happy to wait. "This is great," he said. "The fact that we can choose yes or no is a huge victory." The 31-year-old microbiology lecturer was voting yes, because "democracy must be implemented step by step." "It's not the time for a new constitution," he said.

Behind him, Fayez Isaac, 54, a lay leader in his local church, and his son Hani, 20, an accounting major who was voting for the first time, read several of the morning's newspapers while they waited in the warm sun. Like most Coptic Christians, they were overwhelmingly against the amendments, which they fear will push the country toward early elections that will benefit the Muslim Brotherhood. "There's not enough time to form political parties, so those with money, experience and organization will benefit. We want something better," said Fayez. The stipulations that the president must be a male Muslim also discriminate against minorities, Fayez said. "Some people want to make us feel like second-class citizens."

Across town in the poorer, religiously conservative neighborhood of Imbaba, Nasser Khalifa, 50, sat outside a bakery opposite the Ittihad school, watching voters stream in and out of the multi-storey structure. Christians and secular Egyptians have no need to fear conservative Muslims or the Brotherhood, Khalifa said. "The former government created the fear of people with beards," he said, as he stroked his fist-length beard. "There is no basis for these fears," added his friend, Haithem Abdel Allim, who works at Al-Waqf religious endowment center. Saturday's vote was the first for both men, who proudly displayed their dyed fingers dipped in magenta ink. "It's the first time I feel free," Khalifa said. "I voted yes, but I respect whoever voted no."

Back in Mohandiseen, further up the men's queue, closer to the ornate black metal gate leading into the school's courtyard, Yasser Saleh el-Arabi, 33, was engaged in heated debate with several young men around him. "I'm not Ikhwan, I swear," he said, referring to the Muslim Brotherhood, "but Tahrir is not all of Egypt. I will vote yes because I want stability, it's all happening too quickly!" The florist, a tall, burly chunk of a man in a black galabeya, said he felt put upon. "Look, I loved Hosni, okay, but it doesn't mean I want a new dictator! We never dreamed of the changes we have achieved, but people need to get back to work," he yelled, wiping the sweat from his brow.

"Why will voting 'yes' lead to stability?" asked Omar al-Basyouni, 25, an engineer.

"Because there will be a constitution the government can follow, factories will reopen. You're being selfish, we all earn good money here in this neighborhood. Some people don't make $1 a day," Arabi said.

Basyouni, a bespectacled man in a blue and gray striped hoodie, just shook his head. "A 'yes' vote will mean more elections, it will prolong the transition period, because we'll have to vote on a permanent constitution later on. Why not just make a new constitution from the beginning?" The pair continued debating as they slowly moved along the line.

In the women's queue, meanwhile, Nada Shenouda, 23, was anxiously waiting to vote for the first time. The marketing executive had been attending information workshops about the referendum all week at work. "There was a lot of information distributed so that we can make a decision," she said. She was voting "no," and was confident that regardless of the result, Egyptians had made a clear break with the past. "We all know the road to Tahrir," she said. "It's very easy for all the people to go back down there if we need to."

At the gate, armed soldiers checked photo IDs. "Black is for 'no,' green is for 'yes'!" an election monitor from the Ministry for Sports and Youth told a group of women waiting outside a classroom cleared of desks. Inside, four men registered the voters before handing them a ballot. A judicial monitor was assigned to each classroom to supervise the process. More than half of Egypt's 80 million people were eligible to vote.

Akrum Hennawy, 20, a student and Tahrir veteran waited patiently for Mahmoud, the old man in the brown galabiya and white turban, to make his choice. Mahmoud wiped the tears from his eyes and moved toward the padlocked glass box quickly filling with ballots. He dropped his paper in, then dipped his index finger into the magenta ink bottle. Hennawy, an Egyptian flag draped across his shoulders, smiled. "I feel so proud," he said, clearly touched by the old man's tears. "This voting will change things, we changed things. God willing, there will be democracy."