Egyptians began voting Tuesday in a two-day referendum to decide whether to adopt a new constitution supported by the military-backed interim government.
Voters cast ballots under tight security. Reuters news agency reports at least nine people were killed in confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police, official sources said. And even before the polls opened, a bomb exploded outside a courthouse in Giza. No one was injured.
Voters who lined up to take part in the first electoral test of the nation's military-backed interim government expressed hope it would mark the beginning of the roadmap for Egypt after the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi last year.
“I think it's going to be a positive step and bring good to Egypt, God willing. And we'll be a new world and make up for all the past,” voter Afaf Rashad told VOA.
Officials, including defacto leader General Abdel Fattah el Sissi who removed Morsi from power in July, have been pushing hard for a yes vote. Signs in favor of a new charter are everywhere, while the military has brought out youth to literally sing the charter's praises.
Egypt Draft Constitution
Limits president to two four-year terms
President appoints prime minister with approval of parliament
President can dismiss government with approval of parliament
Defense minister must be a military officer
Civilians can be tried in military courts for certain offenses
Islamic law is the basis for legislation
Political parties cannot be based on religion, or have paramilitary components
A committee of mostly non-Islamist Egyptians wrote the new version. The third in as many years, it grants a wide range of freedoms. But constitutional lawyer Ahmed Kamal Abou El Magd says Egypt lacks the political will and institutions to back it up.
“I really appreciate the job done by this committee of 50 but all this can be changed overnight. And nobody would raise a finger to say this is not serious, this is not true,” he said.
Many see this as a referendum not just on a new set of laws, but on the future leadership of Egypt, specifically, whether General el Sissi should become the latest in the country's long tradition of military men as president.
“We see him as a leader. And if this referendum is about Sissi, then welcome,” opined voter Soheir Esmat Ibrahim.
The defense minister is expected to announce a run for president if the charter is approved. Which, in addition to a brutal crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and others, is one of several ISSUES that splits an already deeply divided nation.
The Brotherhood, now branded a terrorist group, has called for a boycott of the vote, seeing it as an attempt to legitimize what it calls the coup against Mr. Morsi. And it's not just most Islamists against the charter. Some long-time secular activists have urged a boycott, while others have been arrested simply for advocating a no vote.
“They are against the constitution, the new constitution, but again they are very much minority," said security analyst and ex-general Sameh Seif el Yazal. "So, I don’t think this will really affect the majority of saying yes to the new constitution.”
But in Egypt, many of the most important changes have happened because of actions by minorities on the street, not majorities at the ballot box.
Meanwhile, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based group that works to uphold the rule of law, described the draft constitution as highly flawed.
“The referendum campaign has taken place within a context of fear, intimidation and repression, calling into question the fairness of the entire process,” it said in a statement.