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Middle East

Egypt deeply divided on constitutional referendum as polls close

Five weeks after the toppling of President Mubarak, Egyptians took to the polls to vote on a referendum to amend the constitution. The move has split Egypt with youth leaders of the revolution opposed to the changes.

A man votes in an election in Egypt in 2005

Opposition and youth leaders urged people to vote "no"

Polling stations opened in Egypt on Saturday for voters to decide on a referendum that would make changes to the country's constitution. Egyptian military leaders said they hope the vote will clear the path for elections within six months.

Sharp divisions have emerged in Egypt as the country's transitional military rulers charged ahead with the referendum on changes to the constitution that would shape Egypt's political future and allow free and fair elections.

Egypt's constitution was suspended by the military council that took power after mass protests forced President Hosni Mubarak from office on February 11.

Voters are being asked to approve or reject nine amendments to the current constitution. Up to 45 million citizens are eligible to vote in the referendum in more than 54,000 polling stations across Egypt.

The army-appointed committee supervising the referendum says the reforms are a first step towards ushering in democracy. But pro-democracy activists who spearheaded the protests that unseated President Mubarak argued that the vote is being called too early and does not go far enough in overhauling the Mubarak-era charter which they say needs to be completely rewritten.

Too much too soon?

It's a view echoed by Nasser Amin, head of the Arab Center for Independent Justice in Cairo.

"It's not pressing at the moment for us to make nine amendments to a bad constitution," Amin told Deutsche Welle. "The situation in Egypt is now stable and allows us to work on fundamentally rebuilding the country for the next generation."

A packed Tahrir square in Cairo

Protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square had demanded political change

One controversial point that has enraged opposition groups and the youth movement is the fact that the wide-reaching powers enjoyed by the president will remain untouched in the constitution for now.

Opponents are also worried about other provisions, like those determining who can run for office. Only citizens who do not have another citizenship and are not married to a foreigner will be allowed to run for president.

Many are also concerned by the pace of the measure - coming just five weeks after President Mubarak was overthrown by mass protests.

"I have the impression that the methods of the past are being used again to an extent. That means: rushing through things, not allowing a general debate about the constitution, not allowing an interim constitution and insufficiently changing the old charter on certain points," Amin said. "And the use of religious groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood to push through the constitutional changes."

A step toward stability?

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, however, sees things differently and has called on people to vote "yes" in the referendum. They said the vote is the first step toward the democratization of Egypt. The referendum, they argue, would end the critical phase that Egypt is currently in and bring more stability.

Henner Fürtig, director of the GIGA Institute for Middle East studies in Hamburg, agreed.

"I think that if the referendum is successful, it would create different and better conditions to discuss all controversial questions," Fürtig told Deutsche Welle. "Holding on to the old constitution wouldn't do that. That's what would happen if people voted 'no' in the referendum."

The expert said if voters rejected the proposed amendments, the old constitution would remain valid as the law of the land. And that would further prolong the transitional period to a democratic system.

Some of the provisions called by the committee supervising the referendum include limiting future presidents to a maximum eight years in office and limiting their power to impose a state of emergency to six months before having to put it to a public vote.

It's a marked change from the old charter but opposition leaders, along with a string of secular parties and young activists, have called on Egyptians to vote "no" to the amendments.

Democratic debate

Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, among the opponents of the amendments, was attacked by a crowd on Saturday as he tried to cast his vote, blocking him from entering a polling station in Cairo. The crowd forced him to return to his car and smashed a car window with rocks.

"We don't want you, we don't want you," a crowd of youths chanted.

ElBaradei is widely respected on the world stage for his work as an international diplomat, but his opponents criticize him for being out of touch with the reality of Egyptian life, because of his frequent trips abroad.

Presidential candidate Amr Moussa is also opposed to the constitutional amendments and insisted that a new president must be elected before parliamentary elections.

Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League

Presidential candidate Amr Moussa opposes the proposed amendments

"With Amr Moussa, there's naturally a high degree of self-interest. Given the lack of alternative candidates, he's one of the few, publicly known people in Egypt," Fürtig said. "He enjoys respect and recognition among many for his work as secretary general of the Arab League. But he's also seen by many as a man of the old regime.

"Naturally, Moussa wants to improve his chances as the presidential candidate with these tactics," the analyst added.

But Moussa fears that if the referendum is approved, it would pave the way for swift parliamentary elections. That could lead to several parliamentarians from the old regime being elected to the new parliament.

The controversy shows no sign of dying down. But experts see that as a positive sign, saying it shows that Egypt is debating its political future in a peaceful and democratic manner.

Author: Nader Alsarras (sp)

Editor: Rob Mudge

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