Egyptians vote in major test of shift to democracy - CBS News 8 - San Diego, CA News Station - KFMB Channel 8

Egyptians vote in major test of shift to democracy

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Protesters shout slogans against Egyptian reform campaigner and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as he arrives to cast his vote outside a polling center in Cairo's Mokkatam district, Egypt, Saturday, March 19, 2011. Protesters shout slogans against Egyptian reform campaigner and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei as he arrives to cast his vote outside a polling center in Cairo's Mokkatam district, Egypt, Saturday, March 19, 2011.

CAIRO (AP) — Eager for their first taste of a free vote in decades, Egyptians lined up by the hundreds Saturday to vote on constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling military that critics fear could propel the country's largest Islamist group to become Egypt's most dominant political force.

The nationwide referendum is the first major test of the country's transition to democracy after a popular uprising forced longtime leader Hosni Mubarak to step down five weeks ago, handing the reins of power to the military.

Underscoring the tensions beneath the euphoria, however, a crowd of angry men pelted reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and a group of his supporters with rocks, bottles and cans outside a polling center at Cairo's Mokattam district.

ElBaradei, who also was the former head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, wasn't injured but was forced to flee in an SUV without casting his ballot. The crowd also smashed the car windows and shouted, "You traitor. We don't want you." ElBaradei supporters at the scene countered by chanting"we want you."

The Nobel laureate later tweeted that "organized thugs" were to blame for the attack. In a second Twitter posting, he said figures from the Mubarak regime were seeking to undermine the revolution, a reference to the uprising that ousted the former leader.

Early signs showed an unusually big turnout, with lines forming before polls opened and snaking along the streets in Cairo and other cities. Men and women stood in separate lines as is customary in the conservative and mainly Muslim nation.

The vote promises to be the freest in Egypt since the 1952 ouster of the monarchy. Egypt has since been ruled by men of military background, with fraud and low turnout defining every nationwide vote.

"This is a historic day for Egypt," Deputy Prime Minister Yahya al-Gamal said after casting his vote. "I had never seen such large numbers of voters in Egypt. Finally, the people of Egypt have come to realize that their vote counts."

Voters were asked to choose 'yes' or 'no' for the whole package of nine changes, which would open elections to independent candidates, impose presidential term limits and curtail 30-year-old emergency laws that give police near-unlimited powers. Preliminary results will be announced Sunday.

A "yes" vote would allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year or early in the next, a timeframe that critics say is too soon for the dozens of political groups born out of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising to organize themselves and be able to effectively compete in elections.

Instead, they say, the timeframe would benefit Mubarak's one-time ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood — archrivals and the two most powerful and best-organized political groups in Egypt.

The NDP is blamed for the rampant corruption and the fraud that marred every election in Egypt during Mubarak's 29-year rule. The Brotherhood, which has strongly campaigned for the adoption of the changes, advocates the installment of an Islamic government in Egypt. The ambivalence of its position on the role of women and minority Christians worry large segments of society.

Leading the "no" campaign are two presidential hopefuls — ElBaradei and the Arab league Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who also a former foreign minister in Egypt.

"This is a truly democratic process," Moussa told reporters after he voted in Cairo.

Egypt's Christians also were overwhelmingly against the amendments. Comprising 10 percent of the population, Christians complain of discrimination and fear their quest for equal rights would suffer a serious setback if the Brotherhood gains influence in post-Mubarak Egypt.

"If the Brotherhood comes to power, they will not benefit anyone, Muslims or Christians," said Fawziya Lamie, a 39-year-old Christian nanny after casting a "no" vote in the Cairo district of Manial.

In the southern province of Assiut, home to one of Egypt's largest Christian communities, priests organized buses to ferry worshippers from churches to polling centers to cast their "no" vote. Islamists using loudspeakers in pickup trucks roaming Assiut's streets were calling on voters to cast "yes" ballots, calling it their religious duty.

"The voice of freedom, truth and power is the voice of The Muslim Brotherhood," said one bearded Islamist. "No voice is louder than the voice of Islam."

Farther south in the province of Luxor, churches handed out fliers to worshippers calling on them to vote "no."

More than half of Egypt's 80 million people are eligible voters. the military, in a bid to get the vote out, has decreed that they would be allowed to cast ballots at any polling center in the country with their national ID cards — issued to those 18 and older — as the only required proof of identity.

They were required to dip their index finger in ink after voting to prevent multiple balloting.

Lack of faith in the process, along with violence and intimidation, has kept most voters away from past elections. But Egyptians — buoyed by the mass protests that led to Mubarak's Feb. 11 ouster — have found a new trust in the system.

"My vote today will make a difference. It's as simple as that," first-time voter Hossam Bishay, 48, said as he waited in line with about 300 others outside a heavily guarded polling center in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district.

The constitutional amendments drawn up by a panel of military-appointed legal scholars are intended to bring just enough change to the current constitution — suspended by the military after it came to power — to ensure that upcoming elections are free and fair.

In addition to allowing independent and opposition candidates to run, they would restore full judicial supervision of votes, a measure seen as key to preventing fraud. They would also limit presidents to two four-year terms and curb the emergency laws that have long been a chief complaint of the people.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.

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