Egyptians have voted in a referendum on whether to change the law governing presidential elections to allow more than one candidate to run in September. President Hosni Mubarak's government says the change is a major political reform and a step towards democracy. But opposition groups say the new law is purely cosmetic and called for a boycott of the referendum.
Opposition groups calling for a boycott of the referendum were shouted down by supporters of President Mubarak's party.
Several small demonstrations by the anti-Mubarak group Kifaya, which means "enough" in Arabic, were surrounded by riot police and attacked by young men chanting pro-Mubarak slogans. The men tore up Kifaya banners, threw sticks, and beat demonstrators. They also harassed and tore the clothes off several female demonstrators.
Opposition groups say these men, and most Mubarak supporters on the streets Wednesday, were paid or coerced to show up.
Mahmoud, 22, held a pro-Mubarak banner, but said he does not support the president.
Mahmoud said he was made to come out to support President Mubarak by the company he works for. He said he did not want to lose his job.
Opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, most opposition parties, and activist groups such as Kifaya, called for a boycott of the referendum.
In the days before the referendum, 40 members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested. Four Kifaya activists were also detained Tuesday.
The proposed amendment only allows candidates to run who have the support of a percentage of parliament. Parliament is almost entirely controlled by Mubarak's party. Doha, a 22-year-old anti-Mubarak demonstrator, says the new electoral law is designed to ensure that Mubarak remains president.
"Everything is made to make President Mubarak president, forever, until his death. President Mubarak will be unfortunately the president for us until he dies and then his son Gamal will be our president," Ms. Doha said.
Others disagree. At a nearby polling station, Reda Abdel Aziz, a member of Mubarak's party, said he had just voted in favor of the amendment.
Abdel Aziz said the amendment is a "beautiful step" forward. He says Egyptians have never been able to elect their president directly, and now they will have freedom of choice in who they elect, like in America.
It is unclear how high turnout has been. A majority of government employees reportedly voted, some of them bussed to polling stations on public buses. An officer at the polling station where Abdel Aziz voted said that employees from the Ministry of Health, public hospitals, and a government-owned bank had come to vote already.
Officials at the polling station, all of whom were seemingly members of the president's party, said no one had shown up to vote against the amendment.