Egypt prepares for fateful referendum

Gamal Essam El-Din , Friday 14 Dec 2012

In spite of deep political division and calls for boycott, Egypt’s most controversial referendum poll will go ahead on Saturday as planned

Egypt prepares for its fateful referendum
(Photo: Ahram)

Egypt’s constitutional referendum will be held against the backdrop of severe political division and with a lack of full judicial supervision. The referendum on its most controversial draft constitution is due to take place on Saturday, 15 December.

For the first time since 1956, the referendum will be held over two stages.

The first stage, due to begin Saturday, 15 December will include 10 governorates: Cairo, Alexandria, Gharbiya, Sharqiya, Daqahliya, Assiut, Sohag, Aswan, and North and South Sinai.

The number of citizens eligible for voting in this stage is estimated at 26.6 million out of a total 51.3 million.

Four of these (Cairo and the three Nile-Delta governorates of Gharbiya, Sharqiya, and Daqahliya) voted overwhelmingly against Egypt’s current Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in Egypt's run-off presidential election in June.

Alexandria, the upper-Egypt governorates of Assiut, Sohag, and Aswan, and the border governorates of North and South Sinai voted 'yes' for Morsi without a large margin from his rival Ahmed Shafiq.

The second stage, due to be held on 22 December, will include Egypt’s remaining 17 governorates, with a number of voters estimated at 24.7 million.

All referendums that have been held since the 1950s in Egypt were organized in one day.

In most of the referendums voters never chose 'no' nor did they vote 'yes' in large numbers to what the president of the republic wished. Saturday’s referendum is not braced to be an exception.

Political division

After a week of indecision, the non-Islamist opposition, led by the National Salvation Front (NSF), embarked upon the option of voting 'no' on the draft constitution rather than calling for a public boycott of the referendum.

The front, led by liberal-minded political activist Mohamed ElBaradie, the ex-chief of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said in a statement on 13 December that “the constitution, drafted by a majority of Islamists, aims to turn Egypt into a religious state and represents a threat to basic freedoms and rights.”

In another move, the front also decided to file a lawsuit before Cairo’s Administrative Court, with the objective of invalidating the referendum.  It said the staging of the referendum over two stages violates a basic condition stipulated by the1956’s law on the exercise of political rights. “This law states that should a referendum be held over two stages, it must take place over two consecutive days rather than on two separate weeks,” said the NSF's lawsuit.

For their part, Islamists – mostly Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-conservative Islamist Salafists – mobilized to rally behind the constitution, urging their supporters to turn out en masse to vote in favour of the new constitution. They also have staged a number of pro-constitution demonstrations in front of mosques, especially in Cairo and Alexandria.

Salafist said “voting yes is a necessity to pave the way for respecting God’s will, ridding Egypt of secularists and liberals and at last implementing Islamic Sharia (laws).”

Monitoring the referendum poll: Media, human rights organizations, judges

Political divisions went so far to include judges, with the majority of them deciding to boycott supervising the referendum. The Higher Electoral Commission (HEC) said as many as 7,000 judges will take charge of monitoring polling stations in 10 governorates.”

According to HEC’s chairman Samir Abu El- Maati, the number of main polling stations stands at 175, while the number of auxiliary polling stations is estimated at 6,375. “This means that the number of judges available is enough to ensure that there is a judge for every voting box,” said Abu El-Maati. He also indicated that the “counting of votes will be held in both main and auxiliary polling stations.”

Opposition and independent judges, however, beg to differ. The NSF warned that “there is a big lack of judicial supervision, the result of which is that polling stations could be swept by rigging practices and irregularities.”

Joining forces, the independent Judges’ Club stressed that “the first stage of the referendum will by no means be held under full judicial supervision.” Ahmed El-Zind, chairman of the Club, said on 13 December that "the first stage is in need of 13,000 judges in order to be under full judicial supervision. Yet, the number of judges available stands at just 5,775, a fact which means that just 40 per cent of polling stations will be covered by judicial supervision.”

El-Zind explained that most of the supervising judges draw from the State Cases Authority – an institution loyal to the government and the Ministry of Justice because it is in charge of defending the government before courts.

El-Zind also indicated that the judges who decided to boycott supervision mostly draw from administrative and criminal courts and from the prosecution-general. “Most of the judges and prosecutors decided to boycott out of their refusal to take part in a big farce and in spite of threats directed at them by the prosecutor-general (appointed by President Mohamed Morsi last month),” said El-Zind.

Abu El-Maati explained that citizens will have to show their national identity cards in order to be eligible for voting. He said “female supervisors will be available to inspect female voters wearing a niqab (face cover).”

According to Abu El-Maati, “voting will begin on 8am and end on 7pm at local time.”

“To guarantee the integrity of elections,” said Abu El-Maati, “citizens will not be allowed to vote in any polling stations outside their electoral districts.”

In spite of their sharp criticism of the draft constitution, most local human rights organizations said they would actively participate in monitoring the referendum.

In a statement on 13 December, a coalition of these organizations warned that “the referendum will be held in a climate of uncertainty and lack of transparency.” They strongly oppose the state-affiliated National Human Rights Council (NHRC) upper hand in running the supervision and monitoring affairs. They warned that since the NHRC is currently headed by Hossam El-Gheriani, chairman of the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly, fears are high that the referendum will be rigged.  

Chairman of the independent Egyptian Human Rights Organisation (EHRO), Hafez Abu Saada said “NHRC and El-Gheriani lack impartiality and there are strong doubts that they will do their best to manipulate the referendum in favour of Islamists. “In fact, many members of NHRC decided to resign in protest to El-Gheriani's affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood, NHRC's lack of independence from the government, not to mention its refusal to give guarantees about the integrity of the vote” said Abu Saada.

Local and international media will be allowed to take part in monitoring the poll. Zaghloul El-Balshi, HEC’s secretary-general, said “Egyptian journalists will be required to show their press cards to be allowed to enter polling stations and cover the vote.” As for foreign journalists and media people, El-Balshi indicated that “they will be required to get a prior permission from the State Information Authority.”

The role of the Egyptian army in referendum poll

For the second time in Egypt’s modern history, the army will be mainly tasked with safeguarding polling stations. The first one took place during parliamentary elections held last December and January.

An estimated number of 380,000 army and police forces will be deployed to secure the referendum.

According to major-general Osama El-Saghir, chief of Cairo police, police and army forces will deployed in front of 1,728 buildings where polling stations will be located.

“These buildings – mostly schools or youth centres or courts – will be under the tight security of police and army forces,” said El-Saghir, adding that “all forms of campaigning will be strictly banned and army forces are empowered to detain any persons suspected of violating rules.”

On 8 December, President Mohamed Morsi gave army forces temporary arrest powers to impose discipline and order during the referendum days. Persons caught violating rules could be sent to military courts for trial.

El-Saghir also indicated that Central Security Forces will be deployed to safeguard prisons and police stations against riot acts.

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