Voters relish Egypt's 1st constitutional polling day despite deadly clashes

Sherif Tarek , Tuesday 14 Jan 2014

Egyptians turn out in large numbers on the first day of voting in the constitution referendum, despite clashes that killed at least nine people and a bomb attack in Cairo

An Egyptian woman ululates as others wave a national flag in front of a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014 (Photo: AP)

A festive atmosphere, with plenty of dancing, reigned Tuesday at a large number of polling stations across Egypt on the first day of the constitutional referendum, in spite of sporadic deadly clashes that left at least nine dead and a bombing in Cairo that resulted in no casualties.

Already plagued with bombings over the last few months, the day's voting began with yet another explosion, when a bomb shattered the facade of a court in Imbaba, a rundown district on the Giza side of the Nile. No injuries were reported. The death toll rose, however, when supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi and opponents – civilians and security forces – faced off.

In Upper Egypt's Sohag, four people were killed, including a 14-year-old boy who was gunned down. Another four died during clashes in Giza, while at least one was killed in the southern Beni Suef governorate. The Ministry of Health announced that three voters died of natural causes on Tuesday, according to Al-Ahram's Arabic news website.

Many voters across the nation remained celebratory and cheerful, however, with most of them endorsing the national charter, a recently-amended version of the 2012 constitution that has been billed as the first step in a wider political transition following Morsi's ouster last July.

A number of female voters, who seemed to be more numerous than in previous polls, voiced their contentment after casting their ballots by ululating and dancing. Songs supporting army chief Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi were often played at polling stations, while many voters chanted in favour of the military general, who has grown immensely popular since reading out on live television the statement marking the end of Morsi's rule.

El-Sisi paid a visit to Al-Kholafaa Al-Rashedin polling station in Heliopolis, where he was warmly received by voters. Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim was similarly greeted while inspecting polling stations in Cairo and Giza.

After casting his vote, interim President Adly Mansour read a statement on national television urging people to vote.

"The nation should prove to terrorists that it is not afraid," he said, adding that the vote will not only be in favour of the constitution, but also for a roadmap for the future.

His stance was reiterated by many other voters. Samir Khalifa, 38, who works in the oil sector, told Ahram Online that he would vote "yes" and that the constitution was "a work in progress" and not perfect, but that it would be "enough for now to keep the country moving forward."

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, and their allies carried through their publicised plans to boycott the referendum, intensifying their protests against what they describe as a "coup d'état."  

The Brotherhood-led National Alliance to Support Legitimacy (NASL) claimed a low voter turnout, accusing the "coup-led media" of falsely claiming the opposite. It also accused remnants of the Mubarak regime of forging votes and bribing voters to approve the newly-amended national charter.

Diaa El-Sawi, spokesperson for Youth Against the Coup, a group of independent Islamists which has opposed the military and the post-Morsi interim government through recent protests, echoed the same sentiments as the Brotherhood.

"[Voter] turnout is particularly low because Egyptians have responded to calls to boycott the referendum," El-Sawi said.

This is in contrast to numerous media reports that showed long queues at polling stations, and liberal observers who believe that many voters headed to the ballot boxes on Tuesday. Many judges on hand at polling stations have reported that the day's turnout was extraordinarily high.

Ahmed Fawzy of the center-left Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP), attributed the high first-day turnout to the general public's wrath against the Muslim Brotherhood.

"I think the people are voting only to punish the Muslim Brotherhood for their violence and for continually standing against the transitional roadmap," Fawzy told Ahram Online. "The Brotherhood is definitely the dumbest political organisation in history. Every day that passes, they become less popular and they lose more ground. The national charter will be endorsed no matter what they do today or on the second day [of voting]."

Sherif Taher of the liberal Wafd Party said that the percentage of voters endorsing the constitution is not the crucial thing. What counts, he said, is a big turnout to give the charter undisputed legitimacy.

"There is no doubt the 'yes' vote will exceed 90 percent, this is no concern, given that the Muslim Brotherhood has decided to boycott the poll," he told Ahram Online. "What really matters now is that we see a high turnout."

"I am afraid the media keeps saying the numbers are huge, which could make other people not bother to cast their ballots. They should start urging people to go, it doesn't matter what their votes are, but they have to go."

"If, for instance, the turnout does not exceed 30 percent, that would mean the public has more or less rejected the constitution. But on the contrary, if the turnout is 60 or 70 percent, that will strengthen the status of the constitution."

Unofficial final results and turnout percentages should be revealed in the early hours of Thursday.

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