Mohamed Ahmed Attia, chairman of the committee that supervised the referendum on the Constitution, announcing results in Cairo
Egyptian voters overwhelmingly approved a referendum on constitutional changes on Sunday (March 20, 2011) that will usher in rapid elections, with the results underscoring the strength of established political organizations, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, and the weakness of emerging liberal groups.
More than 14.1 million voters, or 77.2 percent, approved the constitutional amendments; 4 million, or 22.8 percent, voted against them. The turnout of 41 percent among the 45 million eligible voters broke all records for recent elections, according to the Egyptian government.
“This is the first real referendum in Egypt’s history,” said Mohamed Ahmed Attia, the chairman of the supreme judicial committee that supervised the elections, in announcing the results. “We had an unprecedented turnout because after Jan. 25 people started to feel that their vote would matter.”
President Hosni Mubarak was forced from power last month, 18 days after demonstrations against his three decades in power began Jan. 25. The referendum result paved the way for early legislative elections as early as June and a presidential race possibly in August. The ruling military council had sought the rapid timetable to ensure its own speedy exit from running the country.
The military council has been somewhat vague about the next steps. But Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen told the newspaper Al Shorouk in an interview published Sunday that the generals would issue a constitutional declaration to cover the changes and then set dates for the vote once the results were announced.
The Muslim Brotherhood and remnant elements of the National Democratic Party, which dominated Egyptian politics for decades, were the main supporters of the referendum. They argued that the election timetable would ensure a swift return to civilian rule.
Members of the liberal wing of Egyptian politics mostly opposed the measure, saying that they lacked time to form effective political organizations. They said early elections would benefit the Brotherhood and the old governing party which they warned would seek to write a constitution that centralizes power, much like the old one.
Voters were asked to either accept or reject eight constitutional amendments as a whole — all of them designed to establish the foundations for coming elections. Most addressed some of the worst excesses of previous years — limiting the president to two four-year terms, for example, to avoid another president staying in office as long as Mr. Mubarak. The amendments were announced Feb. 25 after virtually no public discussion by an 11-member committee of experts chosen by the military.
“It is very, very disappointing,” said Hani Shukrallah, who is active in a new liberal political party and is the editor of Ahram Online, a news Web site.
He and many other opponents of the referendum said religious organizations had spread false rumors, suggesting that voting against the referendum would threaten Article 2 of the Constitution, which cites Islamic law as the main basis for Egyptian law.
“I saw one sign that said, ‘If you vote no you are a follower of America and Baradei, and if you vote yes you are a follower of God,’ ” he said. “The idea is that Muslims will vote yes and Copts and atheists will vote no.”
Mohamed ElBaradei, a former top United Nations nuclear official and a Nobel Prize winner planning to run for president, opposed the amendments, as did Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the Arab League, another potential presidential candidate.
In a vote remarkably free of problems, Mr. Baradei was attacked by a mob when he went to cast his ballot, fleeing a shower of rocks and bottles. His supporters said the mob was paid.
The results called into question how much the expected front-runners were really in tune with Egyptian voters.
Most “no” votes emerged from Cairo and Alexandria, Mr. Shukrallah noted, whereas support flowed in heavily from the provinces.
“The revolution was a revolution of the big cities,” he said. “The provinces are just not there. The secular values that drove the revolution have not reached them.”
Essam el-Erian, the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, hailed the results, saying that most Egyptians wanted to move forward toward rapid change, though he noted that the 23 percent opposed should not go unnoticed. “This is an historic day and the start of a new era for Egypt,” he said in an interview. “We are moving away from a bad, autocratic and dictatorial system towards a democratic system. This is the first brick in building our democracy.”
It was the first time the Muslim Brotherhood had campaigned openly since the party was banned in 1954, and the group flexed its full organizational muscle — printing up countless fliers and posters, sending workers out to convince the undecided and driving voters to the polls.
In Cairo and around the country, Egyptians stood patiently in long lines on Saturday to vote, with waiting in the capital well over three hours. Many said they were voting for the first time, participating in the process alone bringing a sense of euphoria.
In previous elections, a turnout of around four to five million voters, or 10 to 15 percent of the electorate, was the norm. Many of them were bused in by the government and paid for their efforts.
This time people came of their own volition, and those on the losing side expressed a certain disappointment and apprehension.
“I believe that even with this result we can never go back to the way the country was,” said Hisham Hawass, 30, a university lecturer in the delta city of Mansoura. But he was worried about the strong Brotherhood showing. “I want our country to advance, and we will not advance if they win.”
The main group of young political activists who helped organize the revolution that toppled Mr. Mubarak had crisscrossed the country in the weeks since the referendum was announced, trying to convince voters to hold out for a longer transitional period before elections.
After failing to convince the generals through negotiations to delay the start of electoral politics, they had hoped that the public would do it. They complained that they had often been kept off the influential state-run television to present their point of view.
One activist, Ahmed Maher, 30, said that on the bright side, the election was not rigged, a first for Egypt, but he worried about the religious element that crept into the get-out-the vote efforts.
“The results of the referendum make me worried about Egypt’s political future,” Mr. Maher said, vowing to redouble his efforts to get out onto the streets to organize before the elections. “The interference of religion in politics can destroy Egypt.”
Islam Lotfy, a young Brotherhood member of the Revolution Youth Council, the same alliance of activists that helped lead the revolt, said that he was glad the amendments passed but that the main thing was that the vote happened at all.
“I only care that people start to participate in the politics of Egypt, to defend their interests and to have the awareness to organize themselves,” he said.