Middle East News
Huge turnout in post-Mubarak Egypt referendum
Mar 19, 2011, 17:49 GMT
Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former Member of Parliament Mohamed el-Baltagy (L) congratulates voters on the novelty of being able to express their opinion for the referendum on constitutional changes in Cairo, Egypt, on the voting day 19 March 2011. Some 40 million Egyptians are eligible to vote either yes or no on a bulk of constitutional amendments. The amendments were drafted by a team of 10 legal experts who were chosen by the country\'s military council, which has been in control since Mubarak was toppled five weeks ago. The amendments would ease restrictions on who can run for president, make it more arduous for a president to continue the current state of emergency, and set term limits on the presidency. Tensions were high 19 March as Egyptians voted for the first time since president Hosny Mubarak was ousted on a constitutional reform referendum that many believe will decide the fate of the revolution. EPA/AMEL PAIN
Cairo - Polls closed on Saturday in Egypt's constitional referendum, with an apparently unprecedented turnout, in the first public poll since Hosny Mubarak was toppled as president five weeks ago.
The polls, which closed at 7 pm (1700 GMT), were open for 11 hours, giving millions of first-time voters the chance to have their say in a constitutional referendum that many believe will decide the fate of the largely-peaceful revolution.
An estimated 40 million of Egypt's 80-million-strong population are eligible to vote with their national identity card for the chance to approve or reject a number of constitutional amendments.
The amendments would ease restrictions on who can run for president, make it more arduous for a president to continue the current state of emergency, and set term limits on the presidency.
Observers said that up to 30 million votes may have voted Saturday, far higher figure than the barely six million who voted nationwide in last November's parliamentary elections, which had been marred with allegations of fraud and voter irregularities.
'It's my first time to vote. I came because I want to make a difference,' said Salma Guindy, as she stood in line to vote in the upscale neighbourhood of Zamalek in Cairo.
'We never had the option of voting before because the election's outcome was set-up before it happened,' added Guindy, who works as a banker.
However, the largely peaceful day was marred as witnesses said opposition figure and former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei was attacked by people throwing stones outside a polling station in the Cairo neighbourhood of Moqattam.
It was not immediately clear if anyone was injured in the incident. The army fired warning shots in the air to disperse the crowd.
Wael Ghonim, a leading online activist behind the Facebook page that helped launched the revolution, described the referendum as 'history was in the making.'
'Today is a response to Hosny Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, Ahmed Nazif and anyone who claimed that Egyptians are not ready for democracy,' wrote Ghonim on his Twitter account.
Similar to the makeup of Tahrir Square, which served as the hub of anti-Mubarak protests, the long queues outside of Egypt's polling stations represented all segments of the country's society, including Muslims and Coptic Christians, the poor and rich, the young and old.
Gone is the process of applying for a voter identity card, a tactic many believed served to deliberately complicate and even rig past elections.
People headed to polling stations across Egypt in groups, with their families and friends - an uncommon scene in a country where for decades elections have been marred by allegations of fraud.
'This is the first time I feel my vote will be counted and my voice heard,' said marketing executive Aya Assaf, as she waited outside a polling station in Cairos north-eastern neighbourhood of Heliopolis.
Arab League chief Amr Moussa hailed the huge turnout as he joined hundreds of voters within the first hour of polling in Cairo.
'It is important people are coming,' he told reporters. 'I am happy.' He also said he voted against the changes.
Civil rights groups, legal experts and prominent figures have criticized the amendments, saying they were hastily written and do not ensure an end to the era where presidential powers often trumped constitutional parameters.
A fierce debate has brewed for weeks in Egypt about whether the country is in need of an entirely new constitution - rather than an amended one - before legislative elections can take place.
Some activists have been campaigning for a no vote, saying new political parties need more time to organize under an entirely new constitution.
The proponents of the amendments largely include those in Mubara's former National Democratic Party (NDP) and their biggest rival, the Muslim Brotherhood. Both have said voting in favour of the amendments will ensure a quick transition of power to civilian rule and stability.
Speaking to the German Press Agency dpa before casting his vote, former Member of Parliament Mohamed Beltagui, who ran as an independent for the Muslim Brotherhood, dismissed claims that the group used religion and Friday sermons to sway uneducated voters in their favour.
'Voting against these changes is voting against faith in the democratic process. Fears that the NDP will win if parliamentary elections are held now are baseless. They used to win based on fraud and theft,' he said.
The referendum is being monitored by thousands of judges and civil society groups, which had been largely curtailed under Mubarak's nearly 30-year rule.
Concerns emerged after the pink dye used to indicate that a vote had already been cast quickly dissipated off the fingers of thousands of voters, giving chance to people to vote more than once.
But online activists described Egypt as 'pretty-in-pink' on a day that saw large numbers practice their right to vote for the first time.
Enat Mahrous, an illiterate mother of four, admitted she does not know much about the amendment changes, but hopes her vote will lead to a better education for her children.
'I don't know which side I voted for. It's my first time and I just wanted to vote,' she said with a smile after leaving a Cairo polling station.
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