By Ben Gilbert
As pro-democracy demonstrations in the Middle East have come to a halt or become mired in violence, Egypt is an exception. The most populous Arab country held a relatively free and fair referendum on Saturday — the first in decades.
Egyptian TV broadcast the results of constitutional referendum last night.
Some journalists cheered as Judge Mohammad Attiya said nearly half of Egypt's 40 million eligible voters showed up. Seventy-seven percent of them had approved eight changes to the country's constitution.
The amendments open up presidential elections to more independent candidates and limit the time for which a president can stay in office. There is also an amendment that allows the next parliament to change the constitution. Some voters waited hours to vote, though 40-year-old Magdi Moussa only spent 45 minutes in line over the weekend.
"This is my first time to vote in my entire life," Moussa said. "Before, I didn't have much trust. If I voted it was just going to be forged at end of day, so why the hassle, that's the real reason (I never voted)."
Moussa voted "no" to the proposed constitutional changes. So did Doa Hussein, who brought her young son and daughter with her to wait in line to vote. She said the changes didn't go far enough — she wants a whole new constitution.
"I voted against the amendments. Because I believe that they should build a new system, a new policy. I never understood why, if you've done something wrong you'd just keep working on the (same) old routine. "
There are other fears among the "no" crowd. Now that the reforms have been approved, parliamentary elections will be held sometime between June and September. That's great for the parties that are well established — like the Muslim Brotherhood and the former president's National Democratic Party. But political parties that were either banned or severely limited under the old regime now have to play catch up.
"Yes" voters cast their ballots for a wide variety of reasons: among them, security and a desire to maintain the constitution's Article 2, which says that Egypt's laws should be based on Islamic law.
As one woman in line said that's why she voted "yes," another woman, Mirbid Salah, her face fully covered in the style of an ultra-conservative Muslim, began arguing with her.
"Our young people went out to liberate us from corruption, not from our religion." She said. "our religion is not in danger."
Salah said she was voting "yes" today for a different reason. She considered the amendments to the constitution enough for the moment — and that other changes could come later.
Iman Al Mamouni, an election observer from the Egyptian Human Rights organization, said the vote went pretty well, though there were problems. But they were relatively minor compared to the outright vote-rigging of the past. This time around, Mamouni said, people felt empowered.
"I was surprised today that I saw all these people outside from 7 o'clock in the morning, even before the doors opened. Everyone wanted to give his voice because everyone in Egypt believes now that his voice is the voice of Egypt, and not only me, Mamouni said."
At one polling place, the former International Atomic Energy Agency Director Mohamad Al Baradei and his entourage attempted to push through the line ahead of other voters. A mob blocked him, while dozens of people shouted, "we don't want him."
Baradei's security men turned him around before he had a chance to vote. As he was quickly ushered into his car, the crowd broke the vehicle's windows. Baradei and his family escaped unharmed. But the incident highlighted the divisions in Egypt — secular vs. religious, and rich vs. poor — that are beginning to surface as the euphoria of revolution wears off and Egyptians forge a new political future.