Egypt votes for Islamist-shaped constitution

Egyptians voted in favour of a constitution shaped by Islamists but opposed by other groups who fear it will divide the Arab world’s biggest nation, officials in rival camps said yesterday after the first round of a two-stage referendum.

Next week’s second round is likely to give another yes vote as it includes districts seen as more sympathetic towards Islamists, analysts say, meaning the constitution would be approved.

But the narrow win so far gives Islamist president Mohammed Morsi only limited grounds for celebration by showing the wide rifts in a country where he needs to build a consensus for tough economic reforms.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s party, which propelled Morsi to office in a June election, said 56.5% backed the text. Official results are not expected until after the next round.

While an opposition official conceded the yes camp appeared to have won the first round, the opposition National Salvation Front said in a statement that voting abuses meant a rerun was needed — although it did not explicitly challenge the Brotherhood’s vote tally.

Rights groups reported abuses such as polling stations opening late, officials telling people how to vote, and bribery. They also criticised widespread religious campaigning which portrayed no voters as heretics.

A joint statement by seven human rights groups urged the organisers “to avoid these mistakes in the second stage of the referendum and to restage the first phase again”.

Morsi and his backers say the constitution is vital to move Egypt’s democratic transition forward. Opponents say the basic law is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights, including those of Christians who make up 10% of the population.

The build-up to Saturday’s vote was marred by deadly protests. Demonstrations erupted when Morsi awarded himself extra powers in November and then fast-tracked the constitution through an assembly dominated by his Islamist allies.

However, the vote passed off calmly with long queues in Cairo and several other places, though unofficial tallies indicated turnout was around a third of the 26m people eligible to vote. The vote was staggered because many judges needed to oversee polling staged a boycott in protest.

The opposition had said the vote should not have been held given the violent protests. Foreign governments are watching closely how the Islamists, long viewed warily in the West, handle themselves in power.

“It’s wrong to have a vote or referendum with the country in the state it is — blood and killings, and no security,” said Emad Sobhy, a voter who lives in Cairo.

“Holding a referendum with the country as it is cannot give you a proper result.”

As polls closed, Islamists attacked the offices of the newspaper of the liberal Wafd party, part of the opposition National Salvation Front coalition that pushed for a no vote.

If the constitution is approved, a parliamentary election will follow early next year.


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