Egypt holds second round of voting on constitution; vice president resigns


Women queue outside a polling center to vote during the final stage of a referendum on Egypt's new constitution in Bani Sweif, about 70 miles south of Cairo on December 22, 2012. (STRINGER/REUTERS)

Millions of Egyptians turned out to vote Saturday on the second and final day of a national referendum on a new constitution that would deepen the influence of Islamic law in their country.

Preliminary and unofficial results show the charter passing. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed Sunday that 64 percent of voters said “yes” to the constitution, though the results are not expected to be officially announced until Monday.

Those who support the charter said they hoped Saturday’s vote would usher in a semblance of stability, ending a month-long political crisis that has seen bitter ideological divisions between Islamists and their opponents devolve into violent street battles.

Also Saturday, Egyptian Vice President Mahmoud Mekki, a career judge whose post will be eliminated by the new charter, announced his resignation, prompting speculation among opposition members that the move had been triggered by a break with the country’s elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

“I have realized for a while that politics does not suit my natural profession as a judge,” Mekki said in a statement late in the day. He said that he had submitted his resignation Nov. 7 but that the request had been “delayed” while he fulfilled various vice-presidential duties.

Although the new constitution was expected to win approval, clashes between its Islamist supporters and opposition members on the eve of Saturday’s vote highlighted the lingering uncertainty here about the country’s political future.

Differences over the constitution have pitted Morsi, who is backed by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, against a broad coalition of liberals, leftists and Christians, who accuse the Islamists of seeking to entrench their own power and ideology amid a tumultuous transition from authoritarian rule. The Islamists say the new constitution and the Islamist-dominated assembly that drafted it reflect Egypt’s democratically expressed will.

Preliminary results from the first round of voting on Dec. 15 showed 56 percent in favor of the constitution. And as Egypt’s remaining provinces — some with strong Islamist constituencies — voted Saturday, many observers said they expected an even wider majority by day’s end. Official results are expected Monday.

If the charter passes, the government is required to hold parliamentary elections within 60 days. The upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council — another body composed mostly of Islamists — would assume legislative control of the country in the meantime.

Some of Morsi’s opponents voiced a feeling of frustrated resignation as they went to the polls Saturday, casting their ballots against what they called a “Muslim Brotherhood constitution” even as they predicted that the referendum would pass.

“We voted no, but we know that the results will be a ‘yes,’ ” said Mervat Nassim Ibrahim, a Christian homemaker, who voted in the religiously mixed working-class district of Shubra al-Kheima, north of Cairo. “It’s just like the presidency. We didn’t vote for Morsi, but he won anyway.” she said

Opposition members say that the constitution, which was hastily approved last month by a panel dominated by Islamists, fails to safeguard the rights of women and minority groups and leaves the door open to fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law. Ibrahim and many others said Saturday they believed that the charter, if passed, would carry dire consequences for Egypt’s Christian minority in a country already fraught with sectarian tension.

If passed, the constitution would also give al-Azhar, the country’s highest Islamic authority, extraordinary power to pass judgment on the religious merits of the nation’s laws.

Opposition activists and “no”-voters said Saturday that approval of the charter would inevitably spur further unrest.

“The opposition is not going to calm down after this,” said Faten Mubarak, a housewife who voted no in the poor, densely crowded neighborhood of Imbaba, in Cairo’s sister city, Giza. “They will go out to the streets again, and it might lead to a civil war,” she said. “We hope not, but people are nervous.”

Opposition protesters clashed with Islamists in the coastal city of Alexandria on Friday night, hurling stones and setting fire to two buses as police fired tear gas to separate the two sides in the hours before the polls opened.

Opposition activists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of serious electoral violations in last week’s round of voting, and many cited fresh claims Saturday, including voter intimidation and delayed poll openings in several districts. In some areas, posters urging Egyptians to vote yes adorned the outer walls of schools that were serving as polling stations, and arguments broke out between voters and monitors.

In Shubra al-Kheima, where the Brotherhood is strong, witnesses said they spotted religious clerics rallying voters from street corners.But the polls remained largely peaceful, and officials said any violations had been minor.

The Islamists — long the most formidable opposition to former president Hosni Mubarak — have scored victories, albeit with shrinking margins, in every election since a popular uprising ended Mubarak’s authoritarian rule nearly two years ago.

Liberals and secularists have accused the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations of exploiting religion to gain votes. Many also pointed to last Saturday’s slim majority — 56 percent — as evidence of a country divided.

“When 45 percent of people say ‘no,’ it is a strong indication,” liberal opposition leader and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said in a speech Thursday. “Some don’t read or write, but they are conscious that they should not be tricked,” he said.

The Islamists, in turn, have painted their poorly organized opponents as sore losers, infidels and beneficiaries of the former government who are seeking to undermine democratic results through mass protest.

“They’re not going to accept it. They will go to the streets and say that the referendum was rigged and it was full of flaws because they do not understand democracy,” said Umm Osama, a mathematics teacher wearing a black face veil. “People need to understand that democracy is with the ballot box,” she said.

Some Islamists cited a low majority at the polls as a sign of legitimacy. “The referendum will pass, and not like the old regime’s elections did,” said Mustafa Abdel Menam Hassan, a rickshaw driver, referring to rigged Mubarak-era votes that gave the autocratic leader outrageous landslide victories.

“It will pass with a respectable percentage, maybe 59 percent,” Hassan predicted. “That’s democracy. Obama won with 1 percent.”

Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

Abigail Hauslohner has been The Post’s Cairo bureau chief since 2012. She served previously as a Middle East correspondent for Time magazine and has been covering the Middle East since 2007.
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