CAIRO – A referendum on a new constitution laid bare the sharp divisions in Egypt six months after the military removed the elected Islamist president, with pro-army voters lining up Tuesday outside polling stations, singing patriotic songs, kissing images of Egypt’s top officer and sharing upbeat hopes for their troubled nation.
Sporadic violence flared across much of the country, leaving 11 dead, with protesters burning tires and pelting police with rocks and firebombs creating just enough tension to keep many voters at home.
Still, the first of two days of voting yielded telling signs that the national sentiment was overwhelmingly behind military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose possible presidential run later this year has grown more likely by the day. That a career army officer might be Egypt’s next president has raised questions about the future of democracy in Egypt, but it also speaks to the fatigue felt by most Egyptians after three years of deadly turmoil and economic woes.
Standing in line to cast his ballot, Ismail Mustafa said he was voting “yes” in the hope of ending the turmoil that has engulfed Egypt since the 2011 ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic ruler, Hosni Mubarak.
“This is it, we have had it. I will vote ‘yes’ even if it is the last thing I do,” Mustafa declared outside a Cairo polling station.
This week’s balloting is a key milestone in a military-backed political road map toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the July 3 coup that left the nation sharply divided between supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood in one camp, and the military and security forces in another, backed by a large segment of the population that is yearning for stability after three years of turmoil.
It is taking place in a climate of fear and paranoia, with authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant number of Egyptians showing little or no tolerance for dissent. Campaigning for a “no” vote risked arrest by the police. Egyptians who have voiced their opposition to the charter, or even just parts of it, are quickly labeled as traitors.
Nearly 400,000 soldiers and policemen fanned out across the nation of some 90 million people Tuesday to protect voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to ousted President Mohammed Morsi, who was backed by the Brotherhood. Cars were prevented from parking or driving by polling centers and women were searched by female police officers. Military helicopters hovered over Cairo and other major cities, while grim-faced, black-clad masked commandos stood guard outside polling centers.
Shortly before the polls opened, an explosion struck a Cairo courthouse, damaging its facade and shattering windows in nearby buildings, but causing no casualties in the densely populated Cairo neighborhood of Imbaba, a Brotherhood stronghold.
The Health Ministry said 11 people were killed and 28 were wounded in clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces. The relatively low number of fatalities was well below the grim predictions of major violence in the run-up to the ballot.
The Brotherhood, now branded a terrorist group, had called for a boycott of the vote and vowed mass demonstrations to disrupt it. But Tuesday’s widely scattered protests numbered no more than 200-300 people each, mostly teenagers and men in their early 20s, many armed with rocks, firebombs and birdshot.
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others widely considered the freest ever in Egypt, including the June 2012 election won by Morsi. But this vote was tainted by criticism that many of the freedoms won during the revolution have vanished amid a fierce crackdown on the Brotherhood and a smear campaign against some of the activists who engineered the 2011 uprising but remained steadfastly opposed to the military’s involvement in politics.
The new charter, drafted by a committee dominated by liberals appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals in certain cases.
The charter is a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi’s Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote, but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.
The current government is looking for a bigger “yes” majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for el-Sissi to run for president. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation’s highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.
“The constitution is not perfect,” said Ameena Abdel-Salam after she cast her ballot in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district. “But we need to move forward and we can fix it later.”
Illustrating the high stakes, the government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as key to the nation’s security and stability. Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards have urged Egyptians to vote “yes,” while anyone displaying posters calling for a “no” vote risked arrest.
Long lines of voters began to form nearly two hours before polling stations opened in some Cairo districts, including Imbaba, where the blast outside the courthouse instantly whipped up anti-Brotherhood sentiment, with chants and shouting against the Islamist group.
The mood was generally upbeat, hostile toward the Brotherhood and hopeful that the charter would bring better days. In Cairo, a group of female voters sang the national anthem as well as patriotic songs dating back to the 1960s. “El-Sissi is my president,” they chanted as some jubilantly ululated. A video clip posted on social networking sites showed women wearing the Muslim veil dancing outside a polling station to a popular song praising the coup that ousted Morsi.
In Assiut, a stronghold of Islamists and home to a large Christian community south of Cairo, voters posed with posters of el-Sissi next to Tawadros II, the Coptic Orthodox pontiff, as patriotic songs blared from speakers.
Many of Assiut’s Christians have complained that Islamists, through intimidation and outright violence, prevented them from voting on the Islamist-backed constitution in December 2012. Not this time, they said.
“This time, we are not afraid of anyone,” 30-year-old Heba Girgis said after casting her ballot. “Last time we were not heard. This time we said ‘yes’ and our ‘yes’ will prevail.”
Manal Hussein, who comes from a village below the Giza Pyramids plateau west of Cairo, wore a dress in the red, black and white colors of the national flag. Her daughter wore an Islamic veil in the same colors.
“This vote brings to an end the era of the Brotherhood, who divided us and turned family members against each other,” Hussein said. Outside a nearby polling station, 67-year-old Alaa al-Nabi Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment — that Egyptians have consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood’s yearlong rule to the past.
“I am here to send a message to the world . . . that we want to live and get our country back on its feet,” he said.
Clashes with security forces appeared designed to create tension and a sense of insecurity.
In several semi-rural localities on Cairo’s outskirts, the tactic appeared to work. Lines outside polling stations were short and an atmosphere of apathy appeared to prevail. In some instances, residents said they have been repeatedly warned by local Brotherhood leaders against voting. In more extreme cases, Morsi supporters pelted polling stations with rocks and sprayed them with gunfire on Tuesday, enough to scare voters away.
In Kirdassa, one of those Brotherhood strongholds near Cairo, turnout was weak.
“This is a place that is 80 percent Brotherhood, so what do you expect?” accountant and local resident Mohammed Mohammadi said. “They have been staging rallies nightly to urge people to vote ‘no.’ “
Meanwhile, a spending bill in the U.S. Congress would restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, but only on condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.
The bill links the $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt’s sustaining its security relationship with the U.S. and abiding by the Egypt-Israeli peace pact.
A Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill said some of the aid would be given only if Egypt supports a democratic transition and holds democratic elections. The U.S. cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt in October in response to the military coup that overthrew the Cairo government and to a crackdown on protesters.