Sharp divide in Egyptian vote on constitution

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 21, 2011 11:45 AM

By Marwa Awad

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians vote on Saturday in a referendum on constitutional changes that are designed to allow free and fair elections but have splintered the reform movement that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

The vote has divided Egypt between those who say much deeper constitutional change is needed and others who argue that the amendments will suffice for now. A high turnout is expected.

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.

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.

"This will be a watershed vote," said Ahmed Saleh, an activist now coordinating ElBaradei's presidential campaign. "People's appetite for voting is high now and change is in the air."

The military council to which Mubarak handed power on February 11 called for a strong turnout. "The goal of this referendum is to create an adequate climate for parliamentary and presidential elections but more important than the outcome is that Egyptians participate and give their voice," it said.

The council asked a judicial committee to draft the amendments, which include a two-term limit on the presidency, restricting to eight years the time a leader can serve in the office Mubarak held for three decades.

Rejection of the amendments will force the council to rethink its strategy and prolong a transitional period that it wants to keep as short as possible.

But the reforms fall far short of the demands of reformists who want the constitution completely rewritten. Youth groups who organized the protests against Mubarak said the amendments were an attempt to "abort the revolution."

TIGHT TIMETABLE

More broadly, they are worried that a tight timetable set by the military for elections will not give enough time for parties to recover from years of oppression and give an advantage to the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak's administration.

General Ismail Etman, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said this week that amending the constitution was "the best and not the most ideal solution."

In an interview with Al Gomhuria newspaper published on Thursday, he said approval of the amendments would lead to new laws that would open up political life, including an end to restrictions of political party formation.

Newspapers, television stations and social networking sites have been alive with debate over how to vote.

The "No" camp pressed its campaign on Friday in a full-page advert in Al Masry Al Youm, a popular Egyptian newspaper.

"How can I agree to a historic decision without time or adequate information?" was one of the objections listed alongside pictures of actors, politicians, religious figures and businessmen who are urging voters to reject the amendments.

On the next page, a Muslim Brotherhood leader gave the opposing view: "Supporting the constitutional amendments is a step toward realizing the demands of the revolution ... the ones who reject them have not offered a clear alternative."

Up to 45 million of Egypt's population of 80 million are eligible to vote and a high turnout is expected from voters accustomed to elections marred by violence and vote-rigging under Mubarak.

"Of course I will vote. I never felt my vote would count as much as it will on Saturday," said Ahmed Adel, 35, who added he would vote for the amendments to help get his country back on track. "We need a parliament and president as soon as possible."

Activist Ziad el-Elemi disagreed: "We are holding workshops across the country to raise awareness among citizens that constitutional amendments are not enough."

(Additional reporting by Dina Zayed, Sherine El Madany and Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry and Marwa Awad, Editing by Kevin Liffey)