CAIRO // Egyptians are casting ballots today, many for the first time, in a constitutional referendum that will test the country's democratic transformation and may help determine who will emerge as its new power brokers.
The referendum on constitutional changes, drafted by a committee appointed by the military council running the country since last month's ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, asks Egyptians to approve measures including term limits for presidents and fuller judicial oversight of voting. They are aimed at paving the way for parliamentary and presidential elections.
Backers of the amendments such as the Muslim Brotherhood, banned under Mubarak, say they will help speed up transition to a civilian rule, free the army for duties like guarding national security and end turmoil that is hurting the economy. 'No' campaigners dismiss the proposed changes as a patchwork that doesn't go far enough in advancing democracy, and say a rushed transition will let established forces -- the Brotherhood, and Mubarak's former ruling party -- dominate parliament at the expense of the activists who led the popular uprising.
"The support of the Islamic currents and of the Brotherhood for the amendments has complicated the referendum and increased the state of polarization," said Amr el-Choubaki, the director of the Alternatives Forum for Political Studies, an independent research organization. "If the changes are accepted, then the power of the Brotherhood will increase."
The 'no' campaign advocates rewriting the constitution from scratch and call for more time to prepare for legislative elections. That's the reverse of the timetable set out in one of the amendments, which says that after elections parliament would create a constituent assembly to write a new constitution.
Egypt's political transition is still "fraught with uncertainty" and that is damaging the "fiscal position and broader economic performance," Moody's Investors Service said on March 16, justifying its decision to cut the debt rating one level. Yields on benchmark 10-year dollar bonds, at about 6.8 percent, have jumped more than 160 basis points this year.
Egypt's stock market has been shut for seven weeks, many tourists have stayed away and factory output has been hit by strikes. Finance Minister Samir Radwan has forecast economic growth of 4 percent this fiscal year, down from a pre-crisis estimate of 6 percent.
The proposed amendments would limit presidents to two four- year terms, ease restrictions on who can run for the post, and let judges scrutinize the balloting when elections are held. Opponents say they fail to curb the powers of the president, a measure they say is necessary to prevent Mubarak-era abuses.
Those campaigning against the changes include potential presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, prominent businessman Naguib Sawiris and the Alliance of the Youths' Revolution, a coalition of protesting groups.
Restrictions on forming political parties will be eased after the referendum and parliamentary elections will probably be in September, allowing new parties time to organize and promote their platforms, Major General Mamdouh Shahine, the assistant defense minister for legal and constitutional affairs, told Al Masry Al Youm newspaper. If the changes are rejected, the military council is expected to issue a constitutional declaration with guidelines for the transitional period.
The Brotherhood has been seeking to assuage fears its influence is growing, saying it will not field a presidential candidate or seek a majority in a new parliament.
'Transparent and Free'
About 45 million Egyptians, more than half of the country's population, are eligible to vote today. Balloting started at 8 a.m. and will end at 7 p.m. Results are expected tomorrow or the following day. Voters must accept or reject the amendments as a single package.
Regardless of the referendum outcome, a "transparent and free" vote will be a step toward democracy, said Ghada Shahbender, a member of the board of The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, which is monitoring the vote. Voting under Mubarak was regularly overshadowed by low turnout, violence and widespread allegations of rigging.
Google Inc. executive Wael Ghonim, one of the online activists who helped spark the uprising and who was jailed in its early stages, said he will be casting a ballot for the first time.
"Finally, I feel that my vote counts," he wrote on his Twitter account. "Democracy is worth all the sacrifice."
--Editors: Digby Lidstone, Chris Peterson.
To contact the reporter on this story: Mariam Fam in Cairo at mfam1bloomberg.net
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Andrew J. Barden at bardenbloomberg.net.