CAIRO — “Now my voice can be heard.”
Majdi Alam Mohammed, a 50-year-old dressmaker, summed up his satisfaction Saturday at voting on proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution. It was the first time, he said, that he was casting a ballot in a genuine referendum likely to have an effect on the way the country is governed.
Large numbers of Egyptians streamed into polling places, taking the first step toward moving their revolution from Tahrir (or Liberation) Square into the halls of government. Voters standing in long lines, some waiting uncomplainingly for up to three hours, applauded the promise of an end to the rigged parliamentary and presidential elections under toppled president Hosni Mubarak, which they derided as frauds that produced precooked results.
“Before, we could all just sit at home,” said Khalid Hassan, a 46-year-old window repairman voting in Cairo’s humble Abassiyah neighborhood. “We knew they would just say what they wanted about the results, and our vote had no meaning. I could say no, they would say yes. I could say yes, they would say no.”
The turnout, described as unprecedented by State Information Service Director Ismail Khairat, was estimated by the government’s High Judicial Commission at 60 percent, three times that of the last election. It suggested an eagerness by millions of Egyptians to carry forward the democratic uprising that began Jan. 25 in Tahrir Square and led to Mubarak’s departure Feb. 11.
Whatever the verdict on the proposed amendments, the vote propelled Egypt to the front of the line in a reform movement that has swept through Arab nations across the Middle East over the last three months.
As many as 45 million Egyptians, about half the population, are eligible to vote under relaxed qualifications. Anyone older than 18 with a national identity card could show up at any polling station to cast a ballot. Under a light police and military presence, Cairo voters lined up outside schools and social clubs — one line for women, another for men — and flashed crimson ink-stained fingers after taking their turn in the voting booths.
A monitoring group, the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development, noted scattered violations of polling rules, saying that in some places curtains were not provided, indelible ink was easily removed and judges were not stamping ballots to certify their authenticity. But there were no reports of the gross vote-rigging that was commonplace under Mubarak.
“I think 80 percent of it will be fair,” said Mervat Shenoda, a 50-year-old boutique and factory owner voting in the upscale Zamalek district. “It’s difficult for us to go from not having any trust to having full trust.”
The referendum asked voters to approve or disapprove en bloc several changes that would limit the president to two four-year terms, curb executive powers, make it easier to form political parties and allow the legislature and voters to more easily end the emergency powers that have been in effect for 30 years since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.
The High Judicial Commission, assigned to supervise the referendum, said results probably could be announced by Sunday evening. If the amendments are approved, the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has suggested it would organize legislative elections in July and a presidential vote as early as September. If they are rejected, the military would step in and outline its transitional document.
Despite the broad enthusiasm for holding a vote, a number of leading political figures, particularly those most closely identified with the Tahrir Square revolt, called for a no vote. The figures include two announced presidential candidates, Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, and Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League.
They and other critics said there had not been enough time since Mubarak’s downfall for voters to understand fully what they were deciding on in the referendum. In addition, they said, the military’s accelerated schedule did not allow time for new parties to form and organize their followers. This, they said, gave an unfair advantage to two established parties, the Muslim Brotherhood and Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.
As ElBaradei arrived to vote in the Mokattam area, a mob supporting a “yes” vote swarmed his car, smashed its windows and began throwing rocks at him, said a witness, Dina Abou Elsoud, 35. “The crowd was Muslim, saying ‘Vote yes for Islam’ and waving Muslim Brotherhood signs. . . . He didn’t get to vote. He didn’t get to go inside.”
Later, ElBaradei tweeted that he and his family were “attacked by a group of organized thugs” and faulted the police as “irresponsible.”
One of those voting no in Zamalek was Tarek el-Gazzar, a 34-year-old lawyer, who tapped out Facebook updates on his iPad while standing in a three-block line, alerting friends to expect waits of up to two hours. He expressed hope that the large turnout would include a majority of nos.
“It will give the country more time to create a real democracy,” he said.
Khalid Samir, a Canadian-trained heart surgeon voting in the middle-class Nasser City neighborhood, carried a sign around his neck saying: “No to piecemeal change. We want a new constitution.” Like Gazzar, he said, his fear was that rushing into elections now would just produce a reproduction of the political system as it stood under Mubarak.
“The old guys could get elected again,” he warned. “They are everywhere: in the governorates, in the ministries, in the media. They can easily keep their hands on power.”
Standing next to him, Mokhtar Hussein disagreed. Egypt needs to change, he said, but should do so “step by step.” Saturday’s constitutional amendments, he said, are the perfect first move toward a better future with a new style of government.
Asked what he did for a living, Hussein said he had been part of the old style, as an undersecretary in the Reconstruction Ministry.
Special correspondent Muhammad Mansour contributed to this report.