Egypt prepares for a final constitutional vote

Gamal Essam El-Din, Friday 21 Dec 2012

Egypt's Islamist-backed constitution will be put to a final stage of vote on Saturday after a first one that was rife with irregularities and lack of judicial supervision

a final constitutional vote
Egyptian voters line up outside a polling center for a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi, in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012 (Photo: AP)

An estimated 25.5 million voters – out of a total 51.3 million – in 17 Egyptian governorates are expected to head to the polls on Saturday in the second phase of the national referendum on the country's first post-uprising draft constitution.

The governorates can be divided into four groups: three Suez Canal ones (Port Said, Suez and Ismailia); five Nile Delta ones (Qalioubiya, Menoufiya, Damietta, Kafr El-Sheikh and Beheira); six Upper Egypt governorates (Giza, Fayoum, Beni Suef, Minya, Luxor and Qena); and three border ones (Marsa Matruh, the Red Sea and the New Valley).

According to statistics released by the Supreme Electoral Commission (SEC), a judicial body officially in charge of supervising the referendum, there will be 176 main polling stations and 6,724 auxiliary ones operating on Saturday. Schools, youth centres and courts will house the majority of the polling stations.

Of the 17 governorates voting in Saturday's poll, Giza has the most number of registered voters, with 4.3 million constituents (representing 17.2 per cent of the total). It is followed by Beheira, with 3.2 million (12.9 per cent); Minya with 2.7 million; Qalioubiya with 2.6 million and Menoufiya with 2.2 million.

The three border governorates of Marsa Matruh, the Red Sea and the New Valley together have only half a million registered voters. The three Suez Canal governorates (Port Said, Suez and Ismailia) include around 1.5 million voters.

More 'Yes' votes?

Many analysts expect that chances for the vote 'Yes' in this stage could be much higher than in the first one in which just 57 per cent of registered voters in the 10 governorates approved the final draft constituents.

Gamal Zahran, an independent political analyst and a former MP for Qalioubiya Governorate, told Ahram Online that most of the governorates in the second stage are rural ones, with Muslim Brotherhood maintaining a sizeable base of support in agricultural governorates such as Beheira, Kafr El-Sheikh, Damietta, Minya, Beni Suef and Fayoum.

"This is to add to the fact that only three out of the 17 governorates (Port Said, Qalioubiya and Menoufiya) voted overwhelmingly against Egypt's current Islamist president Mohamed Morsi," said Zahran.

But the fact remains that the two anti-Morsi Nile Delta governorates of Qalioubiya and Menoufiya are densely populated ones (with as many as 4.8 million registered voters). Menoufiya, the birthplace of Egypt's two former anti-Brotherhood presidents Anwar El-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, is expected overwhelmingly vote against the draft national charter.

Qalioubiya voted against most Muslim Brotherhood candidates in this year's parliamentary elections. Giza, which has the largest number of voters, was narrowly won by Morsi last June.

Zahran, however, stresses that "we have to be cautious about vote predictions."

"Presidential elections are different from the vote on the constitution and this was clear in the first stage," argued Zaharan, indicating that "Sharqiya, Alexandria and Daqahliya showed a strong 'Yes' vote on 15 December, although they voted 'No' to president Morsi last July."

The Muslim Brotherhood claims that it is certain of a 'Yes' turnout in two Nile Delta governorates (Beheira and Kafr El-Sheikh) that have five million voters as well as in three Upper Egypt governorates (Minya, Beni Suef and Fayoum) with 5.6 million voters.

The Muslim Brotherhood and opposition forces have embarked upon promotion campaigns in most of the 17 governorates over the past few days.

The National Salvation Front (NSF), led by opposition figure and former IAEA chief, Mohamed El-Baradei, focused on the three Upper Egypt governorates of Minya, Luxor and Aswan.

NSF's activists Gamila Ismail and Kamal Abbas visited these governorates to urge citizens, especially the large Coptic community there, to vote 'No' to the constitution.

Human rights organisations said several radical Islamist groups intimidated voters in Coptic villages in Qena, Minya and Luxor from voting against Islamist President Mohamed Morsi during presidential election last June. NSF believes that if villages were mobilised to turn out in big numbers on Saturday, millions would likely vote "no” to the constitution.

The NSF have expressed general satisfaction with the results of the referendum's first phase in which 43 per cent of registered voters voted against the draft constitution. NSF have also stated their belief that the first stage of polling was marred by rampant irregularities and fraud.

"The truth is that 66 per cent voted 'No' in the first stage," the opposition group stated.

It submitted a memo to the SEC, complaining that the "Muslim Brotherhood manipulated the first phase of the vote, especially in Alexandria and in the two Upper Egypt governorates of Assuit and Sohag, in favour of 'Yes'. The lack of judicial supervision gave Brotherhood leaders a free hand to rig the vote."

The NSF has high hopes that Giza Governorate will turn out a 'No' vote on Saturday. This governorate voted for NSF member Hamdeen Sabbahi in the first stage of presidential elections last May.

Several youth revolutionary movements like the April 6 Youth Movement, the Popular Current and the Constitution Party have stepped up campaigns in Giza in recent days to push for a 'No' vote.

April 6 has identified that the Giza constituency is comprised mostly of the younger generation and hope to turn this into a 'No' vote. The group also stated that their campaigns in rural governorates in the first stage were fruitful, helping to sway villages to vote against the draft, and that the same method will be adopted for the second phase.

Islamists on the other hand were not very excited by the results of the first phase. Salafist cleric Yasser Borhami, a leading figure in the Salafist Calling attributed the drop in the 'Yes' vote in the first stage to the "poor performance of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and his government."

"This president and his government have made many mistakes in recent weeks, on top of which is declaring their intentions to raise the price of some basic commodities," said Borhami.

Buoyed by rich sources of funding, the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists have been leading 'Yes' campaigns in several governorates in recent days. They have distributed millions of posters and placards urging citizens in favour of the draft constitution.

They have also organised door-to-door campaigns in poor villages in Upper Egypt and the Nile Delta governorates, with the objective of winning over poor voters by offering cheap food commodities like oil, sugar and butane gas in return for a 'Yes' vote.

Lack of supervision

In the meantime, the debate over judicial supervision has heated up. The Independent Judges' Club warned that “a larger number of judges have decided not to take part in monitoring the poll next Saturday and that this casts a cloak of doubt regarding the integrity of this poll."

An estimated 1,400 judges affiliated with the State Council refused to supervise the second stage. The Club of Administrative Prosecutors also said it would abstain from observing the polls.

These two developments led the Judges Club, an unofficial body of senior judges, to warn that "polls next Saturday will be left without any judicial supervision and with the doors for large-scale rigging will now be quite open."

Secretary-general of the Higher Electoral Commission Zaghloul Al-Balshi decided to give up his post on Tuesday. Although Al-Balshi said he had to resign because of health reasons, analysts argued that "Al-Balshi had to resign after he had found out that the total lack of judicial supervision would pose a threat to the integrity of the polls."

"Al-Balshi wanted to resign before he finds himself red-handed with rigging and fraud charges,” said Zahran. Samir Aboul-Maati, chairman of HEC, said: “The resignation of Al-Balshi would not affect the second stage of polls in any way.”

Aboul-Maati also argued that the number of judges available is quite sufficient to guarantee a fair vote and transparent supervision. "The number of judges ready for supervising the poll now exceeds 10,000," Abul-Maati said.

NSF, however, said "even if it is true, the number of 10,000 judges is not enough to cover main and polling stations in 17 governorates."

NSF also complained that "in the absence of judicial supervision in the first stage, the majority of polling stations were merged, and thus thousands of voters were forced to stand for hours in front of polling stations.

"There was too many people inside the stations too; there have been reports of thousands of ballot boxes – especially in rural areas – being stuffed in the resulting chaos," said NSF, are expected to be much worse in the second stage.

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