Egyptian voters say ‘yes’ to speedy elections

March 20, 2011

Repressed for decades, the Egyptian people have spoken: They want a democratic government to go along with their revolution, and they want it fast.

On Sunday, judicial officials reported that 77 percent of those who cast ballots in a historic referendum Saturday voted “yes” on constitutional amendments designed to speed Egypt’s transition from temporary military rule to credible parliamentary and presidential elections.

About 18 million out of more than 45 million eligible voters went to the polls — or 41 percent, below the optimistically high estimates officials had issued Saturday but still a remarkable display of democratic vigor as Egyptians embraced their first chance since the colonial era to participate in a political process whose outcome wasn’t essentially rigged.

The constitutional changes, drafted by a military-appointed panel of legal experts, will encourage the formation of political parties, restrict future presidents to two four-year terms, rein in executive powers, and limit emergency rule to six months, subject to parliamentary approval, rather than the 30 years that marked the tenure of former president Hosni Mubarak.

The voting Saturday was largely calm and almost entirely free of irregularities — about 171,000 ballots nationwide were invalidated, officials said Sunday — but the referendum exposed some sectarian and class fault lines in the Arab world’s most populous nation. The well-organized Muslim Brotherhood urged a “yes” vote, whereas the Christian Coptic community opposed the amendments. So did many secular political leaders and organizers of the student movement that gathered forces to oust Mubarak, who resigned Feb. 11.

Referendum opponents said the quick timetable for parliamentary elections, which could come as early as September, favored the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. They called for a clean break from the past by scrapping the 1971-era constitution entirely, rather than grafting on amendments — noting that some of the changes were proposed by Mubarak in his effort to assuage protesters in his final days in office.

Other “no” voters in well-off areas raised alarms that approving the changes would tilt Egypt toward Islamist fundamentalism and pointed to the Muslim Brotherhood’s strong following among the poor and less educated. But a Muslim Brotherhood spokesman, Essam el-Erian, scoffed at the suggestion that the vote was sectarian.

“Voting was based on patriotic common ground,” he said. “Voting was based on political ideologies rather than religious ones. . . . We are looking to the future, looking for a complete civilian state.”

But Ahmad Maher, a coordinator of one of the revolutionary youth groups, insisted that the voting broke down along sectarian lines. “In the coming period, we will try to spread political awareness among people and combat this shameful tendency of using religion for political goals,” he said.

To Kristen Stilt, an Arabic-speaking law professor from Northwestern University who talked to many voters Saturday as part of her research on Egyptian constitutional law, the landslide “yes” signaled the public’s yearning for stability.

“Despite the revolution, most Egyptians still cling to the structures of the past — a government, a president — and say that these are the structures we must have now,” she said. “People say, ‘When will the economy get better, when will the tourists come back? When we have a government in place.’ ”

That reflected the hopes of “yes” voter Mostafa Hassan, a Cairo dry cleaner. “Egypt is a free country now,” he said. “Of course, I am very happy. It will be good for business.”

Special correspondents Muhammad Mansour and Sherine Bayoumi contributed to this report.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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