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Egyptians Turn out for Referendum on Constitution

Hundreds of Egyptians line out a polling station in Cairo, March 19, 2011 as they prepare to vote on a referendum on constitutional amendments

Hundreds of Egyptians line out a polling station in Cairo, March 19, 2011 as they prepare to vote on a referendum on constitutional amendments

Egyptian voters came out in force Saturday for the first ballot since popular protests swept away the previous government. Egyptians are taking part in a referendum on a package of constitutional amendments.

The chance to make their voices heard was a key demand of the protesters and Egyptians took advantage of the first chance to do so at the ballot box. People stood in long lines outside voting stations even before they opened, a dramatic change in a country where previous votes and their predictable outcomes inspired little more than apathy.

Their choice is a simple yes or no to a set of nine changes to the constitution, written by a panel appointed by the military, leading the country since former President Hosni Mubarak stepped down last month. Among the amendments are moves to open upcoming parliamentary and presidential races to more parties and individuals. Another change would limit the next president to a maximum of two four-year terms.

But some people believe the measures don't go far enough. Salama, who gave just her first name, is a computer engineer who cast her vote in Cairo.

"I think it's better to have a new constitution," she said. "This constitution, this kind of constitution was devised in 1971. It's full of wrong things, wrong articles and clauses. It doesn't make any sense to amend a faulty constitution. We need a new one."

Joining ordinary voters in calling for a no vote are many of the young activists who helped lead the protests. So too are two of the new presidential contenders, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and former U.N. nuclear chief Mohamed ElBaradei. ElBaradei was the subject of a hostile crowd as he tried to vote Saturday, with some smashing the glass of his car as it retreated. It was not immediately clear who was behind the attack.

But many more here are trying to forge ahead - peacefully - with what they see as the business at hand.

Mahmoud Nasr, an engineer at a cola company, cast his vote in favor of the changes.

After voting in the capital, Nasr argued that the amendments are enough to take Egypt to "a peaceful stage" that will allow for fair elections. The votes for parliament and president are set for later this year. He adds that out of those elections will come the group tasked to prepare a completely new constitution.

Other prominent opponents of the old government agree, some for a very specific reason. Publisher Hisham Kassem is aware that pushing through with all these votes may seem hasty.

"Regardless of the fact that the time span is short, I want to see the military back in their barracks. But I believe there will be people there who will disagree, would like to see the military stay in power for longer till they prepare for elections," said Kassem.

Kassam is acknowledging the fears of some here in Egypt that the quick schedule could favor such established groups as Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood has tried to ease concerns by saying it will field candidates for only about a third of the parliamentary seats and will not have anyone running for president.

Despite the polarized views the referendum has elicited, there does appear one shared emotion. Nagy Nassif, a supervisor in a pharmaceutical company, seemed to speak for many in the crowded polling places across the country.

After casting the first ballot of his life, Nassif said he didn't vote before because he felt no matter what he said, the government would do what it wanted. Now, he said, he sees all these people speaking with full freedom. What matters, he added, is that the result is in favor of the people, in favor of the country.

Preliminary results are expected Sunday.