Jubilant Egyptians Vote in Constitutional Referendum
By Charles Levinson, Matthew Rosenberg and Matt Bradley
The Wall Street Journal
March 20 2011
CAIRO—Jubilant Egyptians turned out in surprisingly large numbers to cast ballots Saturday in a historic vote on constitutional amendments that stood as an early test of Egypt's emerging democracy.
Voters lined up for hours at many of the more than 50,000 polling stations across the country. Many said they were voting for the first time in their lives, spurred by the prospect of finally taking part in an election in which the outcome wasn't effectively predetermined.
"This is the beginning of the end of the dictatorship we suffered under since 1952," said Miro al-Zaidi, a 72-year-old retired civil engineer casting the first ballot of his life. "Today, I believe it will be a free vote."
The enthusiastic and peaceful voting offered a glimpse of how much has changed in Egypt in the weeks since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down amid widespread unrest, ending decades of single-party, autocratic rule.
Early indications suggested a relatively problem-free vote, a dramatic contrast to past Egyptian elections, which were often marred by widespread violence and allegations of fraud.
The prospect of a free and fair election in the Arab world's most populous country stood as a potential milestone in the region at a moment when democratic movements across the Middle East are faltering. There have been bloody crackdowns on pro-democracy protests in Bahrain and Yemen in recent days, and Libya appears to be in the opening stages of a full-out—and possibly protracted—civil war.
"This is the biggest democratic experiment in the Middle East ever," said Jason Brownlee, a Middle East expert at the University of Texas who was in Cairo observing Saturday's vote.
If approved by Egyptians Saturday, the constitutional amendments will set the stage for parliamentary elections in the coming months, beginning the process of removing the powerful military from the governing role it assumed after Mr. Mubarak resigned.
At polling stations around Cairo, voters waited patiently in lines that snaked around blocks. Egyptian election observers and political analysts said they were surprised by what appeared to be an unprecedented turnout, although precise figures weren't immediately available.
There were scattered reports of violence and irregularities, which observers blamed on poor and rushed preparations by the seven-member election oversight committee appointed by the military.
The most serious violent incident came when people threw stones at opposition leader Mohammed ElBaradei as he tried to enter a polling station.
Mr. ElBaradei was forced to flee without casting his ballot. He blamed the attack on "thugs," although it wasn't clear to which political leader or party they were loyal.
In parts of southern Egypt, polls didn't open until the afternoon, because there were no judges available to monitor them, as required by election rules. Observers attributed the problem to organizers accidently assigning judges to run polling stations who had died or were not available for other reasons.
The military quickly flew judges to southern Egypt and polls opened there by early afternoon, officials said.
There were also reports of judges allowing ballots to be used that lacked the official electoral stamp. Monitors said the judges, lacking enough stamped ballots, appeared to have acted in good faith to avoid disenfranchising voters due to a bureaucratic snafu, although they noted there could be problems if someone later challenged the votes.
Results were expected late Sunday or Monday.
Saturday's vote offered early clues into the rifts and electoral dynamics that could shape future Egyptian politics. The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group outlawed under Mr. Mubarak, and the National Democratic Party, the former president's ruling party, were almost alone in their support of the amendments. But they hope to capitalize on their already strong organizations in summer elections.
Many reformers who led the revolutionary protests that swept Mr. Mubarak from power opposed the amendments, criticizing them as part of a rushed and problematic timeline for establishing democracy; approving the changes would start the clock on a race they are unprepared to run because they are still setting up parties, they said. The reformers include many of Egypt's secular and liberal politicians.
There were also hints of a religious divide with leaders of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church—whose adherents account for about 10% of the country's 80 million people—also coming out against the amendments.
None of the amendments dealt with the religion, and Coptic leaders told followers their opposition was about stymieing the perceived electoral strength of Muslim Brotherhood.
The proposed amendments limit the president to two, four-year terms, restore the role of Egypt's relatively independent judiciary in overseeing elections, and limit the president's ability to call a state of emergency, among other reforms.
They were devised by a panel of judges and lawyers convened by the military shortly after Mr. Mubarak stepped down and the constitution—which concentrated power in the hands of the president alone—was suspended.
In the days leading up to the referendum, the country witnessed another novelty: a robust public debate ahead of an election whose outcome was an open question. Political parties ran full-page newspaper advertisements, rival political leaders made daily speeches, and talking heads seemed to be endlessly debating the issues on television news shows—providing a glimpse of how the prospect of truly free and fair elections have energized Egyptians.
The excitement was clear Saturday at a polling station in the working-class Cairo suburb of Haram.
"I expected many people to come today because in the past there was fraud in the elections so people did not trust the government," said Tamer Abdel Rahman, 39, a warehouse supervisor.
"People are able to express themselves without fear," he continued, adding that he would vote "yes" on the proposed amendments. "What I didn't expect was so many people this early."
Nearby, a pair of men held a sign that encouraged passing motorists to vote. "Please wait a minute. Now is the first democracy test. Freedom after 30 years. It's not important whether you say yes or no. What's important is that you prove to the whole world that you're Egyptian," the sign read.