Egyptians vote for their future on first day of constitutional referendum
Voters are upbeat at some polling stations; at others the mood is serious
An Egyptian soldier keeps watch as a woman leaves a polling station during the referendum on the draft constitution in Sharqiya. Photograph: EPA
A bomb explosion outside the high court in the poor Cairo neighbourhood of Imbaba does not deter Egyptians from voting in the latest constitutional referendum or from going about their daily business.
Traffic in Imbaba is bumper to bumper. We turn from a main street into a narrow alley and park around the corner from our first stop, a polling station at a school. A drift of rubbish stretches along the wall of the building opposite the school, and sand is underfoot.
Young conscripts, Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders, guard the rickety gate. The Irish Ambassador to Egypt, Isolde Moylan, and I proffer our colour-coded badges before entering a scruffy courtyard where women in headscarves, long skirts and jackets have formed a pulsating queue.
It is the first of two days of voting by Egyptians on a constitution to replace the one adopted during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed by the army last July. The Muslim Brotherhood is boycotting the referendum.
When the women queuing to vote spot us they begin to ululate in high-pitched voices. One woman pounces, shouting about doing her national duty by voting, phrases she has clearly picked up from television campaign advertisements.
A tall policeman in a spotless blue uniform, two silver stars on his shoulders, escorts us up the stairs and into the voting station, where the presiding judge, Reem Mohamed Thabit, keeps a sharp eye on both voters and officials.
She shows us the ballot, a simple rectangle of paper printed with two circles, red for no and blue for yes. “Women judges are often assigned to polling stations meant for women,” she says.
A stout woman in a black cloak comes to the judge’s desk to press her thumb on an ink pad before going over to the officer recording voter identities on a register.
“She’s illiterate,” the judge remarks as the woman presses her thumbprint opposite her name, takes her ballot and goes to the privacy screen, facing the wrong way round, to mark the ballot, before slipping it into a sealed opaque plastic ballot box. No one seems to be interested in whether she chooses red or blue.
Covered but not cowed, women jostle at the door, call to friends inside the classroom and laugh. Voting is not a duty for them but a party. “Egyptian women!” our policeman remarks as he leads us through the melee.
At our second Imbaba school, men, old and young, some in work clothing, are far more subdued as they queue, gravely, proudly. During the 30-year reign of Hosni Mubarak, ousted in 2011, voting was a joke.