Egyptian voters have overwhelmingly approved the country’s new constitution in the referendum held Tuesday and Wednesday, the election commission reported yesterday.
Some 97.6 per cent of those taking part voted in favour, ensuring the adoption of the charter, drafted by a committee representing a range of opinion.
The new constitution has dropped provisions seen as providing a basis for the “Islamisation” of Egypt and contains a well-defined bill of rights granting gender and religious equality. However, the document retains controversial clauses granting the military the right to appoint the defence minister, maintain budgetary independence, and try civilians in military courts for attacks on military installations or personnel.
The 36.6 per cent turnout was, however, only marginally greater than the 32.8 participation rate in the 2012 referendum on the discarded constitution drawn up by a constituent assembly dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and less than the 41.9 per cent rate in the referendum on constitutional amendments staged by the military in March 2011, a month after the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak.
Nevertheless, the massive vote in favour is seen by the military and the interim government as vindication of the removal of Egypt's first democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi on July 3rd and endorsement of the roadmap providing for fresh presidential and parliamentary elections.
In the run-up to the vote, highly popular army chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi called on Egyptians to turn out in great numbers and vote for the constitution, suggesting that he might agree to stand for the presidency if both conditions were met. The turnout, below the 50 per cent anticipated, could give the general pause.
Most Egyptians who rejected the new document did not go to the polls while a boycott was staged by supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood – which has been outlawed and its membership criminalised – and a solid percentage of the electorate is either disillusioned with or uninvolved in politics.
During the campaign, state and private media campaigned vigorously for a Yes vote and a large turnout and posters and banners calling for both festooned the streets. Police detained men trying to hand out leaflets or post material promoting a No vote.
Executive director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights Khaled Mansour said suppression of the No vote was “unnecessary” as widespread support for the new constitution was “evident . . . There was only one political party opposed, the [moderately fundamentalist] Strong Egypt party. People mostly opposed by boycotting.”
He said: “Making a No vote a liability sends the wrong message – that this right has been taken away from [the people].”
He was also critical of the ban on unlicensed demonstrations. “The legitimacy of the current regime is, after all, based on a massive demonstration” on June 30th, when millions of Egyptians called for the removal of Mr Morsi.
Mr Mansour dismissed those who claim the country is, once again, becoming authoritarian. “Egypt can never go back to the era of [Mubarak’s] rule. The regime understands this.”
During Mubarak’s times politics were “proscribed” for everyone but the leader and his clique. “Now there is real politics,” he said.
Egyptian human rights organisations reported more than 100 violations to the election commission, including pressure to vote Yes at polling stations. While the EU and the Carter Centre sent only small teams to monitor the poll, Democracy International deployed 80 observers who visited more than 500 polling stations, and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa sent a team that toured a number of stations.
Berlin-based Transparency International called on the government and civil society to “develp a more peaceful and democratic space to promote views and debate”.