Egyptians show no sign of election fatigue at third constitutional poll

The referendum is being seen as an endorsement of Morsi’s ousting

An Egyptian  soldier stands guard yesterday as officials count ballots after polls closed during the final stage of a referendum on Egypt’s new constitution at the constitutional referendum commission in Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

An Egyptian soldier stands guard yesterday as officials count ballots after polls closed during the final stage of a referendum on Egypt’s new constitution at the constitutional referendum commission in Cairo. Photograph: Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

Thu, Jan 16, 2014, 01:03

Voting on the second day of Egypt’s constitutional referendum is slow but steady at the College of Fine Arts in the leafy residential Zamalek neighbourhood. On Tuesday, the first day of voting, there were modest lines outside the wrought iron gates before the polls opened at 9am. This morning, voters enter without queuing and make for assigned polling stations where there is a rising tide of voting slips in the sealed opaque plastic ballot boxes.

Half a dozen volunteers in bright green vests lend a hand to the confused, elderly or infirm.

A French-speaking volunteer tells a French-born wife of an Egyptian that she does not have to read Arabic to vote. “No problem, you choose between red and blue circles, red for no and blue for yes.”

The referendum, seen as an endorsement of the removal last July of president Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart, and of the rejection of the 2012 Brotherhood-drafted charter, completes the first stage of the roadmap adopted by the interim government, after which presidential and parliamentary elections are due to be held.

Officials come out into the courtyard to register and bring a voting slip to a very old, pale-skinned woman, paralysed and confined to a wheelchair. A volunteer gently dips her finger into a pot of magenta ink to show that she voted.


Volunteers
The volunteers, who belong to the Zamalek Association, also provide cars and buses to bring elderly people to the polling stations and take them home. The association website tracks the situation at the four local polling stations and advises people when to vote so they do not have to queue for hours.

Association head Osman Abaza tells The Irish Times the organisation began as a neighbourhood watch after the police were withdrawn from Egypt’s streets on January 28th, 2011, the bloodiest day of the uprising. They are working with the Cairo government “to try to restore Zamalek to its former glory” as the capital’s most elegant neighbourhood, he says.

The association presses for the clearing of rubbish, closing down of 161 unregistered cafes, and planting and trimming of trees. The group also calls for the rerouting of a metro line so historic buildings are not brought down by tunneling.

The task is immense: pavements are dangerously cracked and broken, rubbish lies uncollected, traffic jams fill the streets with cars and the air with pollution. Zamalek is a shabby and sad shadow of itself but the uprising has given its residents a voice demanding action on grievances and the drive to vote for change.

Early in the afternoon, two perfectly polished black jeeps filled with menacing black-clad, black-masked interior ministry special forces commandos, eyes hidden by wrap-around black visors, pulls up outside the polling station. Behind them come two white vans packed with plain-clothes men, sporting AK-47s. Two commandos stand guard while the rest, armed to the teeth, stride into the compound past the garden with its marble statues of Aphrodite and Apollo.

As the commandos enter and inspect the polling stations, voters come and go, unperturbed. After the vehicles sweep away, volunteer Victoria remarks, “The army came this morning and the chief-of-staff yesterday. We feel secure.”


Acts of violence
In spite of numerous acts of violence by Brotherhood supporters at the Itihadiya palace in Heliopolis and in Giza and Alexandria, Egyptians continue to cast their votes. At one polling station in Giza, the army band entertains voters with a rendition of Biladi, the national anthem.

Prime minister Hazem El-Beblawi announces that nation- wide turnout is higher than the 33 per cent participation rate for the Brotherhood-drafted constitution.

He says unofficial figures show a turnout of 55 per cent of women and 45 per cent of men. Voters remark on the absence of youth disillusioned with the post-uprising period.

At most polling stations, voting proceeds smoothly. Egyptians have had a lot of practice in the past three years: three referendums, elections and run-offs for two houses of parliament and a president.

In Cairo, long lines generally form at stations serving people from outside the city rather than residents. Hundreds of international and local monitors are observing and reporting and, while violations are said to be fewer than in earlier votes, the full tally is not yet in.

US secretary of state John Kerry says: “Our hope is that it will be a process that is transparent and accountable and one that will give confidence to the people that they are going down the road that has been promised. But we don’t know yet.”

If Washington is satisfied, the US may restore deliveries of military hardware to Egypt, suspended after the ousting of Mr. Morsi last July.