Voters in Egypt’s first referendum after the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak backed a set of constitutional changes that some critics say may favor established groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in future elections.
More than 18 million valid ballots were counted, with 77.2 percent of voters approving the changes, Mohammed Attia, the head of the judicial commission overseeing the referendum, said today at a press conference in Cairo.
“This is the first referendum after the people regained Egypt,” said Attia. “The citizen felt after the January 25 revolution that his vote counts.” Turnout was about 41 percent, he said.
Voters cast their ballots yesterday, many for the first time, to approve measures including term limits for presidents and fuller judicial oversight of voting. The changes, drafted by a committee appointed by the military council running the country since last month’s ouster of Mubarak, are aimed at paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.
Backers such as the Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, say the amendments will help speed up the transition to civilian rule, free the army for duties like guarding national security and end turmoil that is hurting the economy.
Opponents say the proposals aren’t enough to advance democracy and that a rushed transition will let established forces -- the Brotherhood, and Mubarak’s former ruling party -- dominate parliament at the expense of young activists who led the popular uprising.
“The support of the Islamic currents and of the Brotherhood for the amendments has complicated the referendum and increased the state of polarization,” Amr el-Choubaki, director of the Alternatives Forum for Political Studies, an independent research organization, said by telephone in Cairo before the results were announced. “If the changes are accepted, then the power of the Brotherhood will increase.”
The Brotherhood and members of the former ruling party are “well organized and are experienced in contesting elections,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, director of Al-Ahram Center for Social and Historic Studies. “This alliance may try to decrease the ability of the new youths’ groups to influence the makeup of the upcoming parliament and the nature of the new president.”
Opponents advocated rewriting the constitution from scratch and called for more time to prepare for legislative elections. That’s the reverse of the timetable set out in one of the amendments, which says that after elections parliament will create a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.
“We have to double our efforts to contest the upcoming elections,” said Nasser Abdel Hamid, a member of The Alliance of the Youths’ Revolution, a coalition of protesting groups that campaigned for a “no” vote. “We have to accept that the people have said their word despite the reservations.”
Ali Abdel Fattah, a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood, said the results “do not reflect the victory of one group over another or the strength of one current more than the others. They reflect the desire of the people for stability.”
Outside some polling stations yesterday, lines snaked as voters, some leaning on canes, waited to cast their ballots. Animated debates broke out among supporters and opponents. Outside a polling station at a school in Cairo’s Saida Zeinab district, 49-year-old Sumaia Shaker, who works for the National Research Centre, lobbied for a “yes” vote.
“Vote ‘yes’ so that we can have some stability and have a new parliament,” she told a group of people queuing to vote. “It’s your duty to spread the word. Otherwise, chaos will reign.”
“You want us to build on a constitution that is flawed?” responded merchant Ali Talaat, 22, who rejects the changes.
Inside, Samah Emad, a 32-year-old housewife, stood in line to cast ballots for the first time.
“Before, we had no elections,” she said. “Everything was rigged. Now, I am determined to say ‘no’ so that I can feel that I am in a democratic country. I don’t want the former ruling party or the Brotherhood to be in charge.”
Egypt’s political transition is still “fraught with uncertainty” that is damaging the “fiscal position and broader economic performance,” Moody’s Investors Service said on March 16, justifying its decision to cut the debt rating one level. Yields on benchmark 10-year dollar bonds, at about 6.8 percent, have jumped more than 160 basis points this year.
Egypt’s stock market has been shut for seven weeks, many tourists have stayed away and factory output has been hit by strikes. Sharaf said yesterday Egypt’s stock exchange may open “within days” after remaining closed since Jan. 27. Finance Minister Samir Radwan has forecast economic growth of 4 percent this fiscal year, down from a pre-crisis estimate of 6 percent.
The amendments would limit presidents to two four-year terms, ease restrictions on who can run for the post, and let judges scrutinize the balloting when elections are held. Opponents say they fail to curb the powers of the president, a measure they say is necessary to prevent Mubarak-era abuses.
Those campaigning against the changes included potential presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, prominent businessman Naguib Sawiris and the Alliance of the Youths’ Revolution.
Restrictions on forming political parties will be eased after the referendum and parliamentary elections will probably be in September, allowing new parties time to organize and promote their platforms, Major General Mamdouh Shahine, the assistant defense minister for legal and constitutional affairs, told Al Masry Al Youm newspaper.
The Brotherhood has been seeking to assuage fears its influence is growing, saying it will not field a presidential candidate or seek a majority in a new parliament.
“We are seeing huge numbers of voters. We are seeing many, many first time voters and that is very significant,” said Ghada Shahbender, a member of the board of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which monitored the vote. “I’m beyond thrilled with the participation rate. Our silent majority is finally out.”
Shahbender said there were “procedural errors” like unstamped ballot cards -- which was dealt with by having members of the judiciary sign the cards -- but “I didn’t see intent on fraud.” Voting under Mubarak was regularly overshadowed by low turnout, violence and widespread allegations of rigging.
Attia said the committee supervising the vote received about 10 “minor” complaints about the process and prosecutors were informed to take legal action against offenders. “Before Jan. 25, results were known and prepared beforehand,” he said.