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December 16, 2012

Mistrust runs deep in Egypt referendum

CAIRO — Nevine Mustafa finally had enough after 10 hours of waiting to cast her “no” vote in Egypt’s referendum on a highly disputed draft constitution. She and the other women in line were convinced the judge running the polling station was deliberately stalling to drive away voters opposed to the document.

So the 39-year-old housewife and dozens of other women launched a protest, blocking the street and chanting against the judge in an upper class district of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city.

“The line was not moving since 8 a.m. I protest. It is now 7 p.m.,” an agitated Mustafa said at the time. “He wants us to get bored and leave.” After their protest, new officials were brought in to speed up the process.

The scene was a reflection of the deep distrust of Egypt’s ruling Islamists and their management of a referendum on a draft constitution that they largely wrote. Questions raised Sunday over the referendum’s legitimacy suggest the confrontation between Islamists and their secular, liberal and Christian opponents will not be resolved by the long-awaited vote.

As Islamist President Mohammed Morsi rushed the referendum despite high pitched opposition, the dispute over the charter has turned into a fight over the Islamists’ hold on power, and the ballot has become a yes or no vote on the president himself.

Rights activists and opponents of the constitution said Sunday that the first round of voting a day earlier was marred by widespread violations, including suppression of voting by opponents of the charter, particularly women, Christians. A coalition of rights groups said the first round was invalid and should be held over again.

That appeared highly unlikely. The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, said the constitution was on route to approval.

But the margin from the first round of voting, which took place in 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces, was narrow — and turnout low, at only 32 percent.

Preliminary results showed 55.8 percent backed the draft, according to the Brotherhood. Its count was based on a compilation of results announced at each individual polling station. In past elections, the Brotherhood’s counts have proven largely accurate.

The strongest “no” vote was in Cairo, with 68 percent, according to the official website of Egypt’s state television. The “yes” vote narrowly carried Egypt’s second largest city, Alexandria, with nearly 56 percent.

The head of the referendum commission said the official results will be announced after the second and last round, scheduled for next Saturday. It was an indication that reports of violations will not stop the process, at least at this stage. Islamists enjoy wide support in most of the 17 provinces in the second round.

The claims of violations are likely to further stoke tensions ahead of the second round, as each camp works to mobilize a population that largely opted to stay on the sidelines of the rivalry.

Over the past three weeks, hundreds of thousands from both camps have held rival protests in the streets that sparked violence leaving at least 9 people dead.

Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan dismissed the rights groups’ allegations as politically motivated to sway public opinion.

“These organizations are funded by Western countries. Just like the Westerners hate the Islamists, so do these groups. They are seculars and they hate the Islamists and have foreign agendas,” Ghozlan said.

Despite worries over the vote’s fairness, voters “should do down in big numbers to say no,” a member of the main opposition National Salvation Front, Abdel-Ghaffar Shukr, told a press conference. The group called for new protests Tuesday.

Many voters who backed the charter argue that men who fear God have written the text, and it must be given a chance.

But the women’s protest during Saturday’s voting in Alexandria’s Rushdi neighborhood reflected anger over what they view as the Brotherhood’s domineering way of ruling. Scores of women blocked traffic, chanting, “Down with the rule of the Brotherhood leader.”  

A young man with a light beard —  which the women took as a sign he was a Brotherhood member — tried to break up the protest, telling the women they were obstructing traffic, said Mustafa, who herself wears a conservative headscarf.

“So we shouted: Down with Morsi,” she said.

The women contended the judge running the station was trying to suppress voting in the district, known to be a stronghold of “no” voters. He repeatedly closed the station for long breaks to pray, talk on the phone, or eat, said Nada Abdel-Azim, a 23-year old who was among the protesters.

“He even asked one voter what she voted,” she said. When told “no,” he shut down for another break, she said.  

“The country is split into two. We too are Muslims. Why are they labeling us infidels” for rejecting the charter, said Abdel-Azim, a teacher.

Standing in the same line, Mervat Ahmed, a 42-year woman wearing a veil that left only her eyes visible — a sign of the most conservative Muslims — got angry when an acquaintance called her to urge her to vote “yes.”

“No, don’t tell me this. I am still voting no,” she shouted into the phone. Explaining herself, she said: “I am not convinced by this constitution. The president has great powers. I don’t want to wait more years to try to strip him of this power. We will not be able to by that time.”

By the end of the day, only 2,873 of the 6,500 women registered in Rushdi district were able to vote. The “no” vote overwhelmingly carried the neighborhood, with only 552 “yes” votes.

Amina Fouad, a 43-year-old self-employed businesswoman, said the district’s turnout seemed higher to her. She and her daughter passed by the station four times waiting for the line to die down before finally deciding to wait to vote.

She said she was voting “no” “to clear my conscience, but she expected the “yes” to win. “It is a joke. I don’t trust them,” she said.

Most of the country’s judges, who normally supervise elections, boycotted the referendum. Opposition voters accused the judges who did participate of being biased, saying some influenced people to vote “yes.” Other voters Saturday also reported suspected Brotherhood members inside polling stations urging people to vote in favor of the charter.

Some judges, in turn, complained that they were overburdened because of the boycott, causing long waits.

Ghozlan alleged the opposition had also committed voting violations, such campaigning in stations against the charter. He said his group will file its own complaints to the referendum commission.

For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter’s parliamentary elections.

The opposition had demanded Morsi cancel the referendum because the draft was passed by Islamists in the Constituent Assembly amid a boycott by secular, liberal and Christian members. For opponents, the draft threatens the notion of moderate Islam Egypt had adopted for decades. They fear it will torpedo many freedoms, from the rights of women and minorities to freedoms of expression and labor organizing.

At a press conference Sunday, representatives of seven rights groups denounced the vote, saying it was carried out without sufficient guarantees of fairness. They said they had reports some polling centers closed earlier than scheduled and that in some cases Christians were denied entry to polls and women were prevented from voting. They said they had reports of individuals falsely identifying themselves as judges.

Negad Borai, the head of one of the groups, said the election commission did not investigate thousands of complaints on alleged violations and irregularities.

On his Twitter account, Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt’s best known reform leader, questioned whether a vote held “under insufficient judicial supervision, clearly tenuous security and the violence and violations we are witnessing” could lead to stability.

The National Council for Human Rights, a state agency, also said that vote-buying took place outside polling centers and that some independent monitors were turned away from polling stations.

While the charges are serious, they don’t touch the wholesale vote fraud that defined Mubarak’s 29-year rule.

In Alexandria’s middle-class el-Shatbi neighborhood, a group of women complained that their ballots were not stamped, raising concerns that the votes wouldn’t be counted.

Habiba el-Sayed, a 49-year-old housewife, screamed at the line as she walked out of the station, urging other women to ensure that their ballots were stamped.

“For two hours, people voted without stamped ballots. Beware,” she screamed.

Associated Press writer Hamza Hendawi contributed to this report.

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