Egyptian constitutional referendum sees low turnout on second day

Egyptians voted for a second day Wednesday in a referendum on a new army-backed constitution, but in significantly fewer numbers that left many polling stations in the capital virtually empty.

For the military-appointed government, high turnout is key to demonstrating that it has widespread backing amid a heavy-handed security campaign against its Muslim Brotherhood foes and the broader opposition.

If approved, the new charter will replace the 2012 constitution drafted by the now-outlawed Islamist group and its supporters, many of whom are in prison after a military coup ousted President Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist, last summer.

On Tuesday, 11 people were killed in clashes between Brotherhood backers and security forces in many provinces, and a Cairo area courthouse was damaged in a blast.

“The referendum has turned into a conflict that is being used by one side to prove its ability to impose its political will” on the other, said Mohamed Naem, a political rights researcher at Cairo’s Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. “It is a battle in the full sense of the word.”

Official results were not expected Wednesday. Twenty-eight percent of eligible voters cast ballots Tuesday, an official told state radio Wednesday. The government-linked National Council for Human Rights said Wednesday’s turnout was less than Tuesday’s.

Still, analysts say the referendum is likely to result in a “yes” vote for the constitution, with many Egyptians viewing the document as a significant step toward political and economic stability after years of turmoil, including a particularly bloody summer in which more than 1,000 people were killed.

“The country is in a state of near-collapse. We want to move the country forward,” said Hussein Ezz, 41, a voter in the greater Cairo district of Mohandessin. “We turned the page on our history with the Brotherhood,” he added. “I don’t want to hear about them ever again.”

Ezz’s sentiments were common among voters in Cairo, who billed their “yes” votes as a triumph over the Brotherhood and Morsi’s year-long presidency. “We hate the Muslim Brotherhood,” read one banner that a small group of voters was holding outside a polling station in Giza province, near Cairo.

“Anyone who votes ‘no’ is being paid,” said Faten al-Sayed Abdel Aziz, a 37-year-old housewife and Cairo resident.

“I’m voting ‘yes’ because it’s a vote for Egypt,” she added.

Other posters on the outside walls of polling stations encouraged ‘yes’ votes and bore photographs of the popular defense minister and likely presidential candidate Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. “For most people, it is Sissi who is giving the constitution legitimacy, not vice versa,” said Naem, the rights researcher.

Despite the palpable pro-government sentiment, many polling stations in the Cairo area were nearly deserted Wednesday afternoon.

“Where is everyone?” one voter asked as she approached a polling place in Mohandessin. Security forces quickly ushered her inside, away from reporters and election monitors at the entrance.

The Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party posted on their Web sites reports that the only polling stations with high turnouts were those in areas with large Christian populations. The movement has long attempted to portray their ouster and the extensive support for the interim government as being led by the Coptic Christian minority.

But reports also surfaced of violence and intimidation directed against those who had voted against — or were campaigning against — the constitution.

Police detained a young man in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood Tuesday after he wrote “no to military trials of civilians” on his ballot and a supervising judge reported him. The new constitution preserves the military’s right to try civilians in army courts.

The National Council for Human Rights also reported instances in which election monitors were not allowed inside polling stations, though they carried accreditation.

“There is no space for people to choose to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ ” Naem said. “Those who go out to vote will vote ‘yes,’ and those who don’t will boycott. The atmosphere right now does not allow you to say ‘no’ — there is no room for that.”

Lara El Gibaly contributed to this report.

Erin Cunningham is an Egypt-based correspondent for The Post. She previously covered conflicts in the Middle East and Afghanistan for the Christian Science Monitor, GlobalPost and The National.
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