x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egypt votes for second day in constitutional referendum

The final day of voting in a constitutional referendum was held in Egypt on Wednesday, the results of which are expected to define the country's future diection.

CAIRO // Egyptians lined up to vote in the second and final day of a constitutional referendum on Wednesday despite an outburst of violence that left at least 11 people dead the previous day.

Though results of the constitutional referendum are unlikely to be announced before the weekend, the draft charter is almost certain to be approved due largely to a muscular “yes” campaign backed by the government, businessmen and liberal political parties.

Instead, observers are watching voter turnout as a barometer of the popularity Egypt’s interim military-backed government.

At polling stations across the country, it was General Abdel Fattah El Sisi, the military leader who removed Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, who seemed to seize voters’ attention.

In many voting places, boom boxes blasted the pro-military anthem “Bless Your Hands” as voters posed for photographs next to soldiers deployed to guard the polls.

By Wednesday morning, Egypt’s government was already seeking to portray the referendum as a success. Ehab Badawy, the spokesman for Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, wrote in an email on Wednesday morning that “millions” of Egyptians cast ballots yesterday to demonstrate their “belief in democracy.”

“Across the country, Egyptians are coming out in great numbers to enthusiastically participate in this historic process,” Mr Badawy wrote. “We encourage all Egyptians regardless of their views to participate and let their voices be heard.”

The vote is being held amid political tension and violence that persists six months after the military removed Mr Morsi following an outpouring of public anger against his rule.

On Tuesday, the government deployed 250,000 police and military personnel around the country for the vote, state news media reported.

Despite the added security, election-related violence, including clashes between security forces and antigovernment protesters, left at least 11 people dead on the first day of voting, according to state media.

State television reported at least four people were killed when government opponents fired automatic weapons at voters from rooftops near a polling station in the city of Sohag.

The violence has been fuelled by the arrest of thousands of Mr. Morsi’s supporters and the killing of more than a thousand by security forces in street clashes.

The government billed a “yes” vote in the constitutional referendum as a stamp of approval for the military-backed government and its plans for a transition to democratic rule that include presidential and parliamentary elections.

In November, prominent businessmen connected with the former regime financed a multimillion-dollar “yes” campaign on television and billboard advertisements. Even the state-funded media promoted a “yes” vote with televised advertisements.

The weeks leading up to the referendum were marked by tough security measures and opponents of the draft constitution have largely been silenced, making a “no” vote unlikely. Nearly all of the leaders in Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which asked its supporters to boycott the vote, have been arrested on charges of inciting violence and of membership in a terrorist organisation.

At least seven activists were arrested last week distributing posters and flyers that encouraged Egyptians to vote “no” in the referendum. Some of them are being investigated for conspiring against the state, according to New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

According to independent election observers and judges who administer polling stations, turnout seemed low on Tuesday.

Many hope the new constitution will finally end three years of protests and violence. The vote could also empower Gen El Sisi to nominate himself for the presidency — a contest he would be expected to win.

* Dow Jones Newswires