As Libya is bombed, Egypt votes

Egyptian women cast their ballot papers

Paola Raymond had been waiting patiently in line under the hot Cairo sun for two hours.

“I’m 45-years-old,” she said cheerily, “and this is my first time voting. I feel absolutely great.”

Across Egypt millions of others were doing the same in a referendum which will shape the course of the Egyptian Revolution.

Towns and cities across the country were unusually quiet as voters headed to polling stations, with many saying it was the first time in their lives they had bothered to vote.

“Take my word for it,” said Nadia Farid, a 43-year-old assistant manager for Lufthansa who was queuing up to vote at a school on the upmarket island of Zamalek in Cairo. “Most of the people here are voting for the first time.”

The referendum, which is asking Egyptians to approve a series of amendments to the country’s 1971 constitution, is the first genuinely democratic poll in decades.

Previous elections have been marred by rigging, intimidation and violence, and yesterday’s vote marks a serious test for the ruling military government.

Bassem Samir, who works for election-monitoring group the Egyptian Democratic Academy, said the poll seemed to have passed off without major incident.

“This is the first time we have had a vote under the control of the army and police where there have been no clashes.”

The army wants voters to approve the constitutional amendments before presidential and parliamentary elections which have been slated for the summer.

There are nine proposed changes, which include lifting restrictions on who can be nominated for president, modifying the hated Emergency Law and imposing limits on presidential terms.

Supported by the Muslim Brotherhood – which along with the formerly-ruling National Democratic Party is the only main opposition group which has campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum – the military argues that the changes are the best way to ensure fair elections this summer.

Yet aligned against them are an array of figures from across the political spectrum,

They include two of the main possible presidential candidates – Mohamed El-Baradei, the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief, and Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League – along with leading pro-democracy youth group, the January 25 coalition, and the leftist Al-Tagamma party.

They argue that an entirely new constitution is required to make a clean break with the Mubarak regime, and have raised fears that a summer election is too soon and will only benefit the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood.

Back at the polling station Paola Raymond, a dentist, said that she was voting no because she was worried about the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.

“The day that I will not be able to speak freely and dress as I want to dress will be the day I leave the country,” she said.

Yet in the poor west Cairo district of Boolaq, where voters were casting their ballots at the run-down Mustafa Kamal school next to a grubby motorway overpass, there was widespread support for the changes and a quick handover to civilian rule.

Hamad El-Sayed, 45, said: “I have three children and I want their lives to change for the better. I want the country to start walking again and I want the police back on the streets.”

According to Tahany El-Gabali, Egypt’s first female judge and vice president of the supreme constitutional court, there were reports of Muslim Brotherhood scare-mongering in Egypt’s rural areas before the poll.

“I was told that some Muslim Brotherhood people are saying to their followers they should vote yes or their religion could be under threat.”

Yet initial indications would seem to suggest that Egypt’s first election in the post-Mubarak has passed without too many glitches.

Pre-referendum opinion polls had indicated the outcome of the vote was too close to call – something which in itself is a novelty for a country used to little more than rubber-stamp election farces.

With results expected either today or tomorrow, the country will be holding its breath to see where the revolution goes next.

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