CAIRO – Egyptian rights groups called Sunday for a repeat of the first round of the constitutional referendum, alleging the vote was marred by widespread violations. Islamists who back the disputed charter claimed they were in the lead with a majority of “yes” votes, though official results have not been announced.
Representatives of seven rights groups charged that there was insufficient supervision by judges in Saturday’s vote in 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces and independent monitors were prevented from witnessing vote counts.
The representatives told a news conference that they had reports of individuals falsely identifying themselves as judges, of women prevented from voting and that members of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood were allowed inside polling stations. They also complained that some polling centres closed earlier than scheduled and that Christians were denied entry to polling stations.
Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s best known reform leader, was as frustrated by how the referendum was run as the rights groups.
“Is a referendum held under insufficient judicial supervision, clearly tenuous security and the violence and violations we are witnessing the road to stability or playing with the country’s destiny?” the Nobel Peace Laureate and former U.N. nuclear agency chief wrote on his Twitter account.
The vote is the latest stage in a near two-year struggle over Egypt’s identity since the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. The latest crisis over the Islamist-backed charter evolved into a fight — deadly at times — over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under Morsi’s Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.
Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed to help the police protect polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.
Potentially adding to questions over the legitimacy of the vote is the low turnout in the first round — unofficially estimated at 32 per cent, which if confirmed would be far lower than the presidential or parliamentary elections following Mubarak’s fall. A second round is to be held in the remaining 17 provinces on Saturday.
Those that did vote were deeply divided. The Brotherhood claimed about 57 per cent voted in favour of the draft. The state-owned Al-Ahram daily published similar unofficial results in its online edition. The Brotherhood, which has in the past accurately predicted election results, relied on vote tallies announced at individual polling stations across the country and collected by its activists.
The strongest “no” vote was in Cairo, with 68 per cent, according to the official website of Egypt’s state television. The only other province where the “no” vote won the majority was Gharbiyah in the Nile Delta, north of Cairo.
The “yes” vote was strongest in deeply conservative, rural provinces of the south, Assiut and Sohag. It also narrowly carried Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria, where nearly 56 per cent voted “yes,” according to updated results after earlier, partial data showed “no” votes ahead.
The Brotherhood and other Islamists enjoy wide support in most of the 17 provinces voting next Saturday, something that could work in favour of the “yes” vote.
Wael Ghonim, an icon of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak, summed up the Saturday vote in a Tweet he posed on his account: “Out of every 100 Egyptians, 69 did not take place in the referendum, 18 said ‘yes’ and 13 said ‘no.’”
The draft constitution would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, or Islamic law, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter’s drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.
According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style “religious police” to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft — regardless of what the laws on the books say.
For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter’s parliamentary elections. Morsi rejected opposition demands that he cancel the referendum.
A statement by the seven rights groups called on the election commission to avoid the same type of violations in the second round and repeat the first round.
“The vote counting took place took place in darkness,” said Negad Borai, the head of one of the groups. He alleged the election commission did not investigate thousands of complaints on alleged violations and irregularities.
Some of the charges made by the seven groups were echoed in a statement issued by the National Council for Human Rights, a state agency, adding weight to the claims. It added that some polling centres did not have voters’ lists, that vote-buying took place outside polling centres and that monitors’ permits to be at polling stations were not recognized.
While the charges are serious, they don’t come close to the wholesale vote fraud that defined Mubarak’s 29-year rule. While the charges raise more questions about the legitimacy of the vote, it is unlikely that the state election commission will order a do-over.
Some voters on Saturday said the presumed supervising judge at their polling centres refused to show them official documents to certify that they were indeed a judge. Others said some polling centres closed hours ahead of the 11 p.m. cutoff.
Still others complained of suspected members of the Brotherhood whispering to voters inside polling stations to vote “yes.” And some voters alleged some of the supervising judges were influencing voters to choose “yes.”
A group of women in Alexandria alleged the judge in their polling centre was stalling to stop them from voting.
Egypt’s tenuous security was on display on Saturday and again on Sunday.
Late Saturday, a mob of hardline Islamists known as Salafis attacked the Cairo offices of the liberal Wafd party, smashing windows and doors.
Egypt’s latest crisis began when Morsi issued a decree on Nov. 22 giving himself and the assembly writing the draft immunity from judicial oversight so the document could be finalized before an expected ruling to dissolve the panel by the nation’s highest court.
On Nov. 30, the document was passed by an assembly composed mostly of Islamists, in a marathon session despite a walkout by secular activists and Christians from the 100-member panel.
On Sunday, the head of the nation’s highest court, the Supreme constitutional Court, said he was prevented by Morsi’s supporters from entering the tribunal’s Nile-side building. The president’s supporters have been staging a sit-in outside the court since Dec. 1, the day before the court was expected to rule to dissolve the constitutional panel.
If the constitution is approved by a simple majority of voters, the Islamists empowered after the overthrow of Mubarak would gain more clout. The upper house of parliament, dominated by Islamists, would be given the authority to legislate until a new lower house is elected.
If the draft proposal is rejected, elections would be held within three months for a new panel to write a new constitution. In the meantime, legislative powers would remain with Morsi, who won the presidency in June.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael contributed to this report.