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Egypt's second referendum vote underway

As millions of Egyptians turned out to vote in the second and final round of the constitutional referendum, even the best of friends differed over the country's future.

An Egyptian woman casts her vote at a polling station in the second round of a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of president Mohammed Morsi.
An Egyptian woman casts her vote at a polling station in the second round of a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of president Mohammed Morsi.

GIZA // As millions of Egyptians turned out yesterday to vote in the second and final round of the constitutional referendum, even the best of friends differed over the country's future.

Adel Mahmoud, 71, a former agricultural development consultant for the United Nations, and Sayed Thabet, 65, an architectural engineer, are neighbours in the neighbourhood of Dokki, in Giza. They pray in the same mosque and spend all their free time together "as friends who share a lot of spiritual connections".

Mr Mahmoud voted No because the rushed referendum had not achieved the consensus he believed was needed for a constitution. Mr Thabet voted Yes "because we have had instability for too long".

Both men voted for Mohammed Morsi in the presidential elections in July. Mr Thabet said what the country needed was more time to debate the articles under contention.

"You can't have a new constitution with just over half of the country voting yes," he said. "You need at least two thirds. This vote is driving a wedge between different groups."

"We have to end the transition period," said Mr Sayed, arguing that there was no controversy over the document itself.

Instead, he said, the issue was that both sides of the impasse - the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters and the National Salvation Front opposition umbrella group - were seeking political gains.

So the discussion went around Giza yesterday, with debates - sometimes emotional - breaking out between men and women waiting for their chance to vote.

Approval of the constitution is near certain, after preliminary results from the first round on December 15 showed 56.5 per cent voting in favour. Those initial districts included some of the strongholds of the opposition, such as Cairo and Alexandria, while yesterday's voting took place mostly in more rural areas where Islamists have wider support.

Mr Morsi drove the country into a political crisis last month with a decree that granted him wide powers, which he later replaced with a milder version after huge demonstrations, and a constitution that many saw as the fruit of an Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly. At least eight people have died in clashes between the rival groups and hundreds have been injured, including 80 in Alexandria on Friday night.

The National Salvation Front, urged its supporters to vote No, while those backing Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have called the constitution the best in the nation's history.

It remains to be seen what would become of investigations by the Supreme Electoral Commission and other courts into claims of electoral offences that included improper supervision of voting and intimidation of voters. Nevertheless, the likelihood that the constitution will pass did not appear to dampen the resolve of some voters.

"I don't care what the results from the first round were," said Ahmed Al Badry, 25, a computer engineer, standing in line in Dokki. "It's my responsibility as a citizen to say no to this constitution. This is the contract between the people and the government."

Mr Al Badry said the charter gave too much power to the president and was too vague on crucial issues such as workers' rights and social justice.

Down the road from Dokki, near Pyramid Street, a Coptic Christian standing in a queue questioned why the country needed to enshrine Islam in bolder terms in the constitution.

"Egypt has always been an Islamic country," said Ihab Aziz, 36, a tailor. "I don't think we need to say any more. It only makes people like me feel less Egyptian."

A heavyset man who said he was a supporter of the Brotherhood shouted at Mr Aziz and told him to stop speaking. "It's not your right to say this to foreigners," he said.

The Brotherhood supporter left when others in the queue ordered him to leave, but the debate continued.

Osman Khalil, 52, a transport coordinator for an oil company, said the dispute over the constitution was not between Copts and Muslims, but between those who wanted "total freedom", who he described as secularists, and those who wanted a common morality to place some restrictions on public life.

"The freedom we have now is beautiful, but we don't want boys and girls kissing in the streets or worse," he said. "The secularists want total freedom and the people are not agreeing with this."

Nasser Hassan, 41, an assistant in a bookshop, said the opposition was portraying Islam as something grotesque when in fact it is a "religion of love, of accepting all religions".

"We are voting here today, which is a wonderful thing, not because of our political parties, but because we love our new democracy," Mr Hassan said. "The divisions are because of political movements wanting their own personal gains."

 

bhope@thenational.ae