As Libyans fight, Egyptians revel in first free vote for decades
Amid the exuberance, however, election monitors reported significant irregularities and violations, a reminder that the road to democratic governance is not as easy as Egyptians might hope.
Egyptians flooded the polls Saturday like a wave that had been unleashed after half a century, eager to participate in a referendum that marked the first time many felt their votes had ever mattered.Skip to next paragraph
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Long lines formed outside polling stations all day, providing a marked contrast to the empty voting centers in fraudulent elections held last year, and reflecting the national excitement at the opportunity to have a say in Egypt’s future after former president Hosni Mubarak was ousted by a popular uprising last month. The outcome of the referendum on constitutional amendments will shape the transition period over the next year.
Yet amid the exuberance, election monitors reported significant irregularities and violations, a reminder that the road to democratic governance is not as easy as Egyptians might hope, and large challenges loom ahead. Still, many voters were hopeful that their country was on its way toward a better future.
“I feel happy, I feel like a true Egyptian today,” says Nagwa Helmy Khalil, a middle-aged woman standing in line in the Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood. She says she was voting for the first time in her life. “It's the first time I feel my voice will be heard. It's the first time I’ve participated because I feel it's real. There is hope, there is change.”
What the vote was about
The referendum was a simple up or down vote on a slate of constitutional amendments that would impose presidential term limits, scale back executive power, and give the parliament the ability to keep the president from ruling under emergency law.
If it passes, it will pave the way for a vote within months to elect a new parliament, which will then form a council to rewrite the Constitution. Presidential elections would be held by the end of the summer.
Final results have not yet been released, but early counts indicate that the amendments will pass. Turnout was reported to be as high as 60 percent, at least three times the last election.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, the only movements in Egypt with significant organizational structures in place to be able to benefit from quick elections, supported the amendments.
Amendments don't go far enough?
Many prominent intellectuals and most Egyptian Christians urged voters to reject them, calling for a complete rewrite of the Constitution and more time for political parties to organize before a parliamentary election. Both presidential candidates, Arab League head Amr Moussa and former nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei opposed the amendments.
The public debate on the referendum in the weeks leading up to the vote was unprecedented, itself a sign that Egypt is heading toward something more like democracy.
Public figures discussed the proposed changes on television, citizens argued over their votes while riding the metro, and families and neighbors tried to sway one another. Many Egyptians with Facebook accounts changed their profile pictures to a “yes” or “no” graphic written in Arabic.
“We discussed our decisions with our relatives and neighbors. I have never seen anything like this before,” says Mona El Maraghy, who described taking her four children to participate in Egypt's protest movement that brought down the president. “We were quiet before. But now we feel that the society became like lions. The fear that was there for 30 years is gone." She made a motion as if squashing a mosquito. "We killed it as if it was nothing but an insect."
She stood with her adult daughter – many families came together to vote – in a line that stretched out the door of the Nasr City polling station, down the block, and around the corner.