x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Egypt's Islamists claim win in referendum

Muslim Brotherhood says 'yes' vote wins 56 per cent but opponents say poll was tainted by widespread irregularities, and women and Christians were prevented from participating.

CAIRO // Islamists claimed a victory for what they called the "democratic process" yesterday after preliminary results showed a slim majority had voted to ratify a draft constitution that has divided Egypt.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said 4.6 million people, or 56.5 per cent, voted "yes" in the referendum, and 3.5 million voted "no". The figures are based on the party's own count of votes at polling stations in 10 of Egypt's 27 provinces.

Turnout was 33 per cent. The rest of the country will vote next Saturday and official final results are expected soon after.

"The Egyptian people have expressed their free will in the first stage of the constitutional referendum and have also proved to be highly aware; this is a genuine democratic process," the party said.

But rights groups said the referendum was discredited by widespread irregularities and called for a rerun. They said there was insufficient supervision by judges, that independent monitors were prevented from witnessing counts and that women and Christians had been prevented from voting.

Even if the results hold next week, president Mohammed Morsi will be left with a more polarised country and diminishing support as he tries to steer a damaged economy back on track, analysts said.

"For sure, the Brotherhood considers it a big victory, a mandate, but from an outside point of view the results show their supporters are declining," said Abdel Moneim Said, head of Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in Cairo.

"There is clearly an increase [in support] to the secular and civil camps, and this means some changes could come in the parliamentary elections," Mr Said said.

The Freedom and Justice Party won nearly half the seats in the first parliamentary elections this year but those gains were erased when the supreme constitutional court dissolved the lower house of parliament because it said part of the voting was not constitutional. The party has been able to maintain influence through Mr Morsi, a former top official in the Muslim Brotherhood.

If the constitution is approved by voters, new elections for the People's Assembly will begin some time in the next several months and the Freedom and Justice Party will have to contend with a strong Salafist movement and a re-energised liberal bloc.

The opposition believes the writing of the constitution was dominated by Islamists and is not representative of a nation of 83 million and all its disparate political movements and religions. They have charged that it does not protect many freedoms and allows a greater involvement of Islam in state affairs.

The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups have argued that the constitution was the best in Egypt's history and would pave the way for stability after nearly two years of political battles and power struggles.

Opposition forces yesterday decried voting irregularities, improper supervision of ballots and restricted access to polling stations during the first day of the referendum. The National Salvation Front, the umbrella opposition group, said it would file formal complaints with the supreme electoral commission.

The divided vote over the constitution would also prolong a debate over it, said Zaid Al Ali, an expert on Arab constitutions at the Sweden-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a non-governmental organisation.

"After a vote on a constitution, a country wants to focus on politics," he said. "But if you don't find agreement that is sufficiently large, that includes a sufficient amount of people, the you are not going to be talking about politics. You are still going to be talking about the constitution."

bhope@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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