Egypt on track to approve Islamist-influenced constitution

Egypt on track to approve Islamist-influenced constitution

Opposition parties accuse Muslim Brotherhood of rigging referendum; final round of voting to take place Saturday

An Egyptian soldier stands guard outside a polling center as women stand in line to cast their votes during a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, December. 15, 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)
An Egyptian soldier stands guard outside a polling center as women stand in line to cast their votes during a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo, Egypt, on Saturday, December. 15, 2012. (photo credit: AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Egypt appeared to be on the way to approving a controversial Islamic-influenced draft constitution after the first round of voting on Saturday, which took place in largely in the urban centers of the the country. The second, and final round, will take place on Saturday, December 22.

An official tweet by the Brotherhood, Egypt’s most powerful political group, said its tallies showed nearly 57 percent of voters said “yes” to the disputed charter, while about 43 percent voted ‘no.’ The vote was held on Saturday in 10 of the country’s 27 provinces, including Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city.

The voters came out “peacefully and in large numbers” according to the New York Times, which reported on Saturday that the Muslim Brotherhood, the former party of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, expected the referendum to pass.

Although the Egypt Independent reported on Sunday that Cairo, the largest voting district, had rejected the referendum 57 percent to 43%, all other areas reported a majority “yes” vote, including Egypt’s second urban center of Alexandria, according to the news outlet. It did not say what the figures were based on.

Al-Arabiya reported preliminary results on Sunday morning of 61% for the constitution and 38.7% against, after little more than half the ballots were counted. The station said the numbers were based on “unofficial tallies.”

Opposition officials, however, said the referendum had been struck down with 66% against, according to Al-Arabiya.

On Saturday, Egypt’s opposition bloc accused the Muslim Brotherhood of rigging the election, and expressed “deep concern… over the number of irregularities and violations in the holding of the referendum.” The National Salvation Front, the opposition umbrella group, said that the irregularities pointed “to a clear desire for vote rigging by the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Violations reported by monitors included polling centers without judges to oversee the process, civil employees illegally replacing the judges, ballot papers not officially stamped as per regulations, campaigning inside polling stations and Christian voters being turned away.

The full results of Saturday’s vote are expected mid-week, with the final results coming sometime after next Saturday’s final round of voting.

Egyptians took their quarrel over a draft constitution to polling stations after weeks of violent turmoil between the newly empowered Islamists and the mostly liberal opposition over the future identity of the nation.

Regardless of the outcome, the heated arguments among voters standing in line signaled that the referendum over the contentious charter is unlikely to end Egypt’s worst political crisis since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

The voting capped a nearly two-year struggle over the post-Mubarak identity of Egypt, with the latest crisis over the charter evolving into a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.

Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed to help the police protect polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.

The large-scale deployment did not stop a mob of supporters of ultraconservative cleric Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail attacking the Cairo offices of the liberal Wafd party, a member of an opposition alliance that has campaigned against the draft constitution.

“Today I would like to offer my condolences to the Egyptian people on the collapse of the rule of law,” Wafd leader El-Sayyed el-Badawi said.

The opposition called for a “no” vote, while Morsi’s supporters said the constitution will help end the political instability that has roiled Egypt since the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown. Clerics, from the pulpits of mosques, have defended the constitution as a document that champions Islam.

The draft would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, or Islamic law, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter’s drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.

According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style “religious police” to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft — regardless of what the laws on the books say.

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. Morsi rejected opposition demands that he cancel the referendum.

Critics, meanwhile, are questioning the charter’s legitimacy after the majority of judges said they would not supervise the vote. Rights groups also warned of opportunities for widespread fraud, and the opposition said a decision to hold the vote on two separate days — Dec. 15 and 22 — to make up for the shortage of judges left the door open for initial results to sway voter opinion in the next round.

The shortage of judges was reflected in the chaos engulfing some polling stations, which led the election commission to extend voting by four hours until 11 p.m.

Egypt has 51 million eligible voters, half of whom were supposed to cast their ballots Saturday in 10 provinces, and the rest next week.

Egypt’s latest crisis began when Morsi issued a decree on Nov. 22 giving himself and the assembly writing the draft immunity from judicial oversight so the document could be finalized before an expected court ruling dissolving the panel.

On Nov. 30, the document was passed by an assembly composed mostly of Islamists, in a marathon session despite a walkout by secular activists and Christians from the 100-member panel.

If the constitution is approved by a simple majority of voters, the Islamists empowered when Mubarak was ousted would likely gain more clout. The upper house of parliament, dominated by Islamists, would be given the authority to legislate until a new parliament is elected.

If it is defeated, elections would be held within three months for a new panel to write a new constitution. In the meantime, legislative powers would remain with Morsi.

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