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Egypt votes in divisive constitutional referendum

© AFP

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2012-12-15

Egyptians voted Saturday in a two-round constitutional referendum that has sparked weeks of violent protests. The charter is supported by the ruling Islamists but opposed by a broad opposition of liberals, moderate Muslims and Christians.

Egyptians voted Saturday in the first round of a referendum on a proposed constitution that has bitterly divided the country, sparking weeks of violent protests and attacks on the presidential palace. President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist supporters are seeking the constitution's passage while liberals, moderate Muslims and minority Christians vehemently oppose it.

The vote on the disputed constitution has turned into a choice between moving Egypt closer toward a religious state, led by Morsi’s Islamist backers in the ruling Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi bloc, or one that retains secular traditions with an Islamic character.

Beyond the rule of law

Jean Maher, president of the French-Egyptian Association for Human Rights in Paris, said that a “yes” vote was likely because of a lack of judicial oversight and because the highly organised Muslim Brotherhood, the ruling Islamist party that backs Morsi, had “bribed poor rural voters with gifts of sugar and oil”.

“Egypt’s revolutionaries specifically did not want either a religious state or a military state, yet this is exactly what this constitution would give them,” he told FRANCE 24 on Saturday. “It will give them a dictatorship beyond the rule of law that hands all the power to religious groups and to the army.”

Maher explained that Article 198 of the constitution allows for civilians to be tried by military tribunals under vague circumstances. Article 219 would allow Islamic Sharia law to be applied in all its forms, while making Sunni clerics responsible for the interpretation of Sharia.

“This vote will certainly bring chaos back to Egypt,” Maher said. “We are expecting a ‘yes’, which is a result that the revolutionaries and the majority of Egyptians do not want.”

But Maher said the constitution’s adoption would not come easily. “The opposition will never take it sitting down,” he said. “They have never been so strong -- and ironically, it is Morsi that has brought them all together.”

“The times of silence are over,” bank worker Essam el-Guindy told the Associated Press as he waited to cast his ballot in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district. “I am not OK with the constitution. Morsi should not have let the country split like this.”

Guindy was one of about 20 people standing in a line for men waiting to vote. A separate women’s line had twice as many people. Elsewhere in Cairo, hundreds of voters began queuing outside polling stations nearly two hours before the voting started at 8am.

“I read parts of the constitution and saw no reason to vote against it,” Rania Wafik told the news agency, as she held her newborn baby and waited in line to vote. “We need to move on, and I just see no reason to vote against the constitution.”

Worst crisis since Mubarak

More than 26 million voters are scheduled to cast their ballots on Saturday while another 25 million will vote next week. Saturday’s vote is being held in 10 provinces including Cairo and the Mediterranean port of Alexandria, the country’s second-largest city and the scene of violent clashes on Friday between opponents and Morsi supporters.

Egypt’s worst crisis since the uprising that led to the February 2011 ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak began when Morsi issued a November 22 decree giving himself and the Islamist-dominated panel that drafted the constitution immunity from judicial oversight so the document could be finalised before an expected court ruling dissolving the panel. 

An Islamist-dominated assembly unilaterally passed the draft on November 30 in a marathon session, despite a walkout by secular activists and Christians from the 100-member panel.

Morsi later reversed many of the decree's dictates, including those on expanding presidential powers, but pushed ahead with the referendum.

If the constitution is approved by a simple majority of voters, the current upper house of parliament, dominated by Islamists, would be given the authority to legislate until a new parliament is elected.

If the constitution is defeated, elections would be held within three months to choose a new panel to draft a new constitution.

(FRANCE24 with wires)
 

Date created : 2012-12-15

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