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.
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.
Women and men stood in separate lines, but all waited for hours in the hot sun for the chance to mark a “yes” or “no” on the proposed amendments. The lines seemed to be a cross section of Egyptian society: young people stood next to elderly people leaning on canes, women wearing crosses next to women in hijabs, and men in traditional dress beside men wearing business suits.
Stability vs. change
Some debated their votes as they waited to cast ballots. Mrs. Maraghy said she would vote in favor of the amendments because she wants to see a quick return to stability and normality in Egypt. Egypt’s military has been ruling the nation since Mubarak was forced from power, and many Egyptians have expressed a desire to quickly exit the transition period.
Amir Yassa says he had never voted before, but came Saturday to vote "no."
“I don't want the Muslim Brotherhood to take over Egypt. I don't want the blood of the martyrs to be wasted,” he says. “I will vote no so we can give new parties the chance to evolve and rise.”
Next to him in line, two young university students had come together. Ahmed Sayed said he opposed the amendments, because he wanted an entirely new constitution. His friend Mohamed Bakr said he would vote yes. “This is good for Egypt,” says Mr. Bakr of their differing opinions. “This is the new Egypt.”
Inside the polling station, one judge sat in each of the three rooms where voters marked their ballots and put them into transparent boxes before dipping their fingers into bright pink ink.
One young woman came out of the voting room, holding her ink-stained finger up to her mother and grinning widely. The runny ink dripped onto the floor, leaving fuchsia smears throughout the building.
But the ink was just one of the problems election monitors reported Saturday. Meant to be long-lasting to prevent people from voting more than once, the ink was easily rubbed off, said Sherif Abdul Azim of the Egyptian Association for Community Participation Enhancement, one of the civil society organizations monitoring the elections.
Other problems reported by monitors included many ballots that lacked the official validating stamp, which could make them easy to discard later; and widespread campaigning in and around polling stations by Muslim Brotherhood members and religious conservatives urging people to vote for the amendments.
“In all governorates we received complaints that this occurred widely even inside polling stations, with people telling others to vote yes for God, to protect the Islamic state, and so a Christian does not become president,” said Hafez Abu Saeda, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights.
In some polling stations, judges were not present to monitor the vote, while in others, the polls didn’t open on time. Some monitors with official permits were kicked out by police or military officers. And at one polling station, the military arrested a lawyer who has worked to free protesters arbitrarily detained by the Army and tried military courts without civilian representation or the opportunity for appeal.
Particularly troubling, says Mr. Abdul Azim, was the fact that many monitors were not allowed to observe the vote counting. “This is very fishy,” he says. “If you are going to do it with integrity and fairness, then why do this? So there are a lot of irregularities.”
Mr. Abu Saeda says his organization will not challenge the result of the vote, but says the problems and irregularities must be addressed before the next parliamentary elections are held. “We have to talk about this, the future, the next election, what's the guarantee for it to be fair and free, how we can discuss political participation,” he says. “This is the issue we have to put on the political agenda now.”