Egyptians Hurry To Vote On Draft Constitution

Dec 15, 2012
Originally published on December 16, 2012 1:43 pm

Update at 2:54 p.m. ET: Voting Hours Extended:

Voter turnout on the first day of a referendum on Egypt's controversial draft constitution was so high in Cairo and nine other governorates that election officials decided to extend poll hours from 7 until 11 p.m. local time.

Shortly after the extension was announced, the state-funded al-Ahram newspaper posted on its website the results from one polling station in the northern governorate of Dakahlia where 49 votes were cast. The newspaper says the constitution was approved by 55 percent of the voters.

Further results from polling stations in the half of Egypt that voted are expected to come in overnight. But the Egyptian government says the official count won't be released until the other half of Egypt votes next Saturday in the final stage of the referendum.

Such contradictions were widespread during today's vote, which has many Egyptians wondering whether they'll be able to trust what the Islamist-dominated government here announces as the outcome.

Tempers flared in Alexandria, where The Associated Press reported that 1,500 women blocked a main road. The women were protesting a polling station judge they claimed prevented them from casting ballots because they weren't veiled.

In a poor working-class neighborhood of Old Cairo, NPR reporters saw arguments break out at a polling station when a small group of voters planning to cast "no" votes claimed they were given ballots without official stamps on them, rendering them invalid.

Our Original Post Continues:

Turnout was high Saturday morning at polling stations in several Cairo neighborhoods where Egyptians are deciding whether to approve their country's controversial draft constitution.

The Egyptian government claims the document — written mainly by Islamist politicians — provides a badly needed road map for the country. But opposition leaders argue the new constitution allows Islamic scholars to whittle away at the country's secular legal system and leaves too much power in the hands of the president and military.

Just about all the voters we've talked to so far said they had little time to peruse the hastily drafted, 234-article constitution. For them, the vote was more about saying "yes" or "no" to President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.

Some Egyptians were having a hard time casting ballots at all. They were sent text messages by election officials about where to vote, but when they showed up at those polling stations, the supervisors informed them their names weren't on the list. They argued to be let in anyway — to no avail.

Another problem is that many judges who normally would supervise Egyptian elections are boycotting the referendum. They said they oppose the draft constitution because it was drawn up without a national consensus. The boycott forced election officials to split the voting over two days.

There also aren't Western monitors observing the referendum to ensure it is credible. They were a visible presence during previous elections for parliament and the presidency. Westerners were invited by Morsi's government to return for this election, but declined.

"You'd be walking into a situation where it would be very difficult to be perceived as neutral or independent," said Les Campbell, who is the Middle East and North Africa director at the D.C.-based National Democratic Institute. His group monitored Egyptian parliamentary and presidential elections over the past year.

Campbell said it would have made more sense to delay the poll.

"They shouldn't be trying to jam through a document that almost inevitably will be revisited within a few months anyway," he said. "This is just a power play, it's offending people, it's setting people off in the wrong direction. It's causing bitterness and they should pull back."

Morsi's government claims that Egyptian law requires it to hold the vote now. The second and final stage of the referendum will be held next Saturday.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Turnout is high as polling stations across Egypt today as voters there today decide whether or not to approve their country's new constitution. Supporters claim a yes vote will provide stability and a roadmap for Egypt's future. Opponents argue that the document allows Islamic scholars to whittle away at the country's secular legal system, and it leaves too much power in the hands of the president and the military. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in our Cairo bureau. Soraya, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: And you've been talking to Egyptians all week. Do you have a feeling as we speak today as to whether this constitution will be approved?

NELSON: Well, as of a few days ago, the supporters and detractors of this constitution both felt this was going to pass and possibly with a sizeable majority. But more recently, it seems that there are some concern on the side of the Islamists that perhaps the opposition has gotten it's message out and that in fact the vote may be closer than they think. But at this stage, people still feel it will likely pass.

SIMON: I gather there's been some problems at polling stations.

NELSON: Yeah. It's been a little bit hectic. Part of it is because this was such a short notice at election. What they were telling voters was, you know, we can't say where the polling stations are going to be so send a text message or an SMS to this particular number and the government will respond where you should go cast votes. And they did that. But then this morning when they would show up at these polling stations, they were not on the list of voters. And so they're holding up their phones to the soldiers and police trying to get in and were not being allowed to get in. The other problem is that reporters are being kept out. This was certainly not the case with previous elections but they're not allowing us into polling stations - at least most polling stations that we've tried to get into. But the vote is going on, and it's amazing because we see voters, like housewife Adda Mitwali(ph), who showed up and insisted they were going to vote no matter what.

ADDA MITWALI: I'm thinking about my child, not about me. I am talking about the future. Most of people here, they are not coming for themselves. They're coming for the future of their children. So, we have to vote with a yes or no.

NELSON: But she, like many voters we talked to, were reluctant to say how they voted.

SIMON: As it turns out, Soraya, this is only the first of two days of the referendum. The second's a week from now. Why is the vote done this way?

NELSON: Well, because a lot of the judges here who are required to do supervising at polling stations have boycotted the polls. So, they feel that this is not a constitution that was brought about with any kind of national consensus and so they're staying away. And that forced the government to split into two days.

SIMON: Any international monitors at the polls looking for violations?

NELSON: They are absent today as well. A lot of the Western organizations that have been here previously said they just didn't feel there was enough lead time. They were concerned about being perceived as being biased one way or the other. And this is what Les Campbell, who is the Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute had to say:

LES CAMPBELL: They shouldn't be trying to jam through a document which almost inevitably will be revisited within a few months anyway. This is just a power play. It's offending people. It's setting people off in the wrong direction. It's causing bitterness and they should pull back.

NELSON: But President Mohamed Morsi said that Egyptian law requires them to hold this referendum now.

SIMON: Any independent Egyptian observers on the scene?

NELSON: Political parties have said that they would be sending observers there. It's unclear how many of them are in the stations. But this is definitely not an election that has the sort of independent monitoring that we've seen in the past.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo. Thanks so much.

NELSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.