Egyptians vote in historic reform referendum

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:49 AM

By Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians began voting on Saturday in a referendum on constitutional amendments which the military rulers hope will open the door to elections within six months.

A high turnout is expected for the vote, the first in living memory whose outcome has not been known in advance.

The referendum has divided Egypt between those who say the constitution needs a complete rewrite and others who argue that the amendments will suffice for now.

The polls opened at 8 a.m. (2 a.m. ET) and close at 7 p.m. (1 p.m. ET). The result is expected to be announced on Sunday evening or Monday morning, a member of a judicial committee involved in overseeing the vote told Reuters.

Dozens of people queued to vote at one polling station in central Cairo. "I am certainly going to vote. I came as early as I could to go and vote. I couldn't wait," said Eman Helal, a pharmacy store owner in her late twenties.

The reforms are designed to open the door to legislative and presidential elections that will allow the military to hand power to a civilian, elected government.

The military took power after President Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11. He was forced from office by a wave of mass protests against his three decades in power.

One of the reforms, drawn up by a judicial committee formed by the military rulers, limits the amount of time a president can stay in office to two four-year terms.

The ballot paper presents voters with the full list of the amendments and the choices of "agree" or "don't agree." Voters emerged from the polling stations bearing the ink-stained finger that was proof they had cast their ballot.

TIMETABLE FOR ELECTIONS

The Muslim Brotherhood, a well organized Islamist group, has come out in favor of the amendments, setting it at odds with secular groups and prominent reform advocates including Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa, both candidates for the presidency.

Opponents of the reforms say they are an insult to the goals of the anti-Mubarak uprising that sought deep political reform to put an end to Egypt's autocratic system of government.

The military council to which Mubarak handed power on February 11 is hoping the amendments will pass so it can move along the path it has set toward parliamentary and presidential elections that will allow it to cede power to an elected government.

Eager to get out of power as quickly as possible, the military has said the amendments are the best, if not the ideal way forward.

It called for a high turnout, saying participation in a free electoral process was more important than the outcome. The army has deployed 37,000 soldiers to help police forces secure the streets.

Rejection of the amendments would force the council to extend an interim period, which it wants to keep as short as possible, and to form a new judicial committee to re-write the constitution.

That scenario could push back a parliamentary election to December, a security source said. The military is currently planning a September vote, with a presidential election to come afterwards.

(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)