Referendum on constitution reveals a deeply divided Egypt (+video)

The party tied to President Mohamed Morsi says that nearly 57 percent of voters supported the new constitution, while about 43 percent voted against it. A second vote comes later this week.

By , Correspondent

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    Riot police stand guard in front of the presidential palace in Cairo December 16. Egyptians voted narrowly in favour of a constitution shaped by Islamists but opposed by other groups who fear it will divide the Arab world's biggest nation, officials in rival camps said on Sunday after the first round of a two-stage referendum.
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The Muslim Brotherhood's political party claimed a narrow margin of Egyptians voted to accept a new draft constitution, according to unofficial results tallied after the first round of voting, even as opposition groups and rights organizations said the vote was marred by serious violations. 

The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party says nearly 57 percent of voters supported the new constitution, which was pushed by President Mohamed Morsi, while about 43 percent voted against it. The numbers were based on tallies made by judges at each voting station after the polls closed. The main opposition coalition said it would not recognize the results until an investigation was conducted into the alleged violations.

The results, and the dispute over them, reflect the deep divide in Egypt over the foundational document that many had hoped would be a product of consensus, not a reason for division. The vote came after weeks of protests against President Morsi, a former Brotherhood and FJP leader, and his decision to sideline the judiciary and bring the constitution to a quick vote after it was abruptly finished. 

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He had promised after his election not to bring the document to a vote without consensus. But nearly all non-Islamist members of the committee that drafted the constitution walked out in protest, and the opposition calls the document deeply flawed. 

Voter turnout, also according to unofficial reports, was extremely low, at about 32 percent, meaning that those who approved the constitution so far represent a small fragment of Egyptian society. Analysts say that's not a recipe for stability. Some countries that have held constitution referendums have required a minimum voter turnout in order to approve the constitution, to ensure that it has the consensus necessary to bring stability.

Citizens in ten of Egypt's 27 governorates voted yesterday, including the country's two largest cities – Cairo and Alexandria. Residents of the remaining 17 governorates will vote on Dec. 22, and official results will not be announced until both rounds of the referendum have been completed. 

"Regardless of what happens, this isn't going to be a moment that provides a firm foundation for moving forward," says Michael Hanna, a fellow at the New York-based Century Foundation who is currently in Cairo. "Whatever was polarizing and contested about [the constitution] is going to be polarizing and contested moving forward." 

Calls for a redo

A group of rights groups called today for a redo of the vote, citing serious violations.

The coalition said that judicial supervision of polling stations and vote counting, required by Egyptian law, was severely lacking. In dozens of cases, observers discovered that those monitoring the polling stations were not actually judges. In hundreds of other cases, those supervising the polls refused to show observers their identification cards, so observers could not confirm their identity as judges, according to the groups.

They also complained that members of the Freedom and Justice Party, the political branch of the Muslim Brotherhood which Morsi led before he ran for president, were given more access to polling stations than civil society or opposition party monitors, and that in some cases the civil society and opposition observers were not allowed to enter polling stations. Judges also prevented civil society observers from watching the ballot counting, said multiple groups. 

The FJP released a statement that said its observers did not report any serious violations in the vote. By far the most organized of Egypt's parties, the FJP has more observers on the ground than other groups. 

Not enough prep time

The vote was organized so quickly that international monitors that had observed previous votes since Egypt's uprising were not able to observe the vote yesterday. Unlike previous rounds, civil society monitors were not given special passes to allow them to enter the polling stations, contributing to their difficulty in monitoring the vote despite a directive from the commission overseeing the election that they should be allowed to enter. And opposition parties were especially concerned that thousands of judges had decided to boycott overseeing the referendum in protest at Morsi's recent decisions. They worried that meant the judges who were present were more sympathetic to the president. 

Maha Abdel Nasser, a leader in one of the parties that makes up the main opposition coalition, supervised the coalition's effort to collect and document reported violations. She says the coalition, which calls itself the National Salvation Front, will not call for a re-do of the first round of elections because that would play into the criticism that the opposition uses obstructionist tactics. Instead, the group will document the violations and work for a better process next week. Several members of the coalition expressed hopes that the boycotting judges would decide to return to work next week.

With many Egyptians weary from nearly two years of political turmoil, protests, and violent street clashes, "the vote definitely structurally favors the 'yes' vote," because rejecting the constitution means more uncertainty, says Mr. Hanna. Amid that atmosphere, Hanna says it is significant that Cairo, the city that has seen the majority of the protests and turmoil throughout the transition, voted to reject the constitution. 

"What is interesting to me is that Cairo is the place that has been most exposed to the sort of chaos of the transitional period, so in many ways they've been affected the most by it, yet they are the constituency most disapproving of Morsi's performance and willing to risk more transition. That says a lot," says Hanna.

Indeed, some in the opposition say that even if the numbers reported today are correct, they would consider that a success. "Even if it stays like that we've proved that we're half of Egyptian society, and that's what we've been trying to say the whole time – that the draft constitution is dividing Egyptian society," says National Salvation Front spokesman Khaled Dawoud. 

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