Tensions high as vote on proposed Egyptian constitution continues

CAIRO -- Egyptians cast ballots Saturday in the final phase of their voting on a controversial constitution draft that has sown dissension between the country’s Islamist and secular political camps.

Some voters embraced the likely constitution as a chance for stability, while others warned darkly of a power grab by President Mohammed Morsi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood.


In preliminary results from last weekend’s first round, 56% of voters supported the new constitution. However, turn out was dismal with only 32% of eligible voters casting ballots.

The numbers were expected to be similarly low Saturday, reflecting the weariness of ordinary Egyptians with a political process marred by uncertainty and street violence. In the last month alone, Egypt has been jolted by massive public protests and clashes over the president’s declaration of emergency powers, followed by Morsi’s drive to rush the constitution through for approval.

Mistrust and suspicion are high between the country’s two main political blocs. The secular opposition is convinced that the proposed constitution will gradually transform the country into a theocratic state that oppresses women and minorities and denies basic freedoms. They complain that the Islamists instead of addressing their complaints simply took advantage of their power to foist the document on the public. Morsi and his supporters defend the document as a fair legal text that enshrines basic freedoms and is necessary to restore order to the country. They believe a conspiracy exists to topple Morsi’s government that involves elements of the opposition and loyalists to Hosni Mubarak, whose authoritarian presidency was toppled by popular protests nearly two years ago.

“If the constitution passes, we will have parliamentary elections and this will actually allow opposition to organize and run in elections and become an actual opposition force that can have political power and representation in parliament,” said Muslim Brotherhood member Mohamed Abdel Quddous. “But, voting against the constitution would have led us to an unclear path.”

Some voters saw it as simply as matter of asking for a return of law and order after a protracted period of uncertainty.

“We were put in a situation where we have no choice. We need a constitution in place in order to have safety and stability,” said voter Osama Ahmed Mohamed, a 27-year-old Web designer from Port Said.

Morsi, in an effort to dispel charges by his secular critics that the Muslim Brotherhood is looking to create an Islamic autocracy, has vowed that the next parliament could make amendments to the constitution. If the constitution is approved, elections for parliament will take place in two months.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a leader of the opposition’s National Salvation Front coalition. sent out a recorded message Thursday night urging Egyptians to vote against the document.

“Democracy means the rule of the majority, not the authoritarianism of the majority,” ElBaradei said. “All of this will not be achieved unless we all have a constitution that we can agree on. In the second phase, I want to see all of you head out again to say no to this constitution.”

Early Saturday members of the opposition were already citing alleged violations at the polls, claiming that monitors were blocked from entering voting stations. Similar complaints were made the previous week. Judges have split, with some refusing to oversee the vote.

Tensions boiled over Friday in the port city of Alexandria, where a rally by Islamists for the constitution devolved into violent clashes between Morsi and opposition supporters that left at least 63 people wounded.


Suspicions swirl over disappearance of activist in Laos

U.N. Security Council approves military mission in Mali

East Asian elections over but territorial disputes still simmer

Reem Abdellatif reported from Cairo, Ned Parker from Beirut.