CAIRO, Egypt — Galvanized rather than deterred by the threat of violence, Egyptians flocked to the polls Tuesday to vote in a constitutional referendum that will move the country one step closer to fresh parliamentary and presidential elections, seven months after President Mohamed Morsi's removal by military coup.
The day opened with news of an explosion outside a Cairo courthouse, which resulted in no injuries. Polling stations in the capital remained peaceful for the rest of the day. But Cairo's upbeat atmosphere was marred by violence between security forces and opponents of Egypt’s interim authorities in governorates elsewhere, including Giza, Beni Suef, and Sohhag. At least 11 people were killed.
In Cairo, by the time the polls opened, crowds had thronged around the site of the courthouse blast, their feet crunching across broken glass that littered the pavement. “Yes to the constitution, no to terrorism!” chanted one group. “Death to the Brotherhood!” shouted another.
Most interviewed around the courthouse attributed the explosion to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, although there was scant evidence to back this up. The Egyptian government formally designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization only weeks ago, on Christmas Day.
Voters across the Egyptian capital said that the attack had strengthened their resolve to vote, and that they refused to be cowed by the terrorist threat that has plagued Egypt’s mainland since July.
“I’m voting yes, and my vote is for stability. I want to show the terrorists that I’m not scared,” said a woman who lives across the street from the courtroom who gave her name as Mona. “The people of Egypt are not scared of anything. We are strong, and that’s why we’re here in droves.”
The referendum, which continues Wednesday, is a milestone in the "political roadmap" announced by Egypt’s military in July. The constitution is expected to pass easily. Its successful ratification will open the way to fresh presidential and parliamentary elections, which could begin as early as April.
People stood in line for hours at polling stations across the country. Many voters clutched posters of Egypt’s military chief, General Abdel Fattah el Sisi. The vote is seen in many quarters to be as much a referendum on the military as it is on the constitution that they have overseen to this stage.
Egypt’s army commands widespread popularity, particularly in the wake of the July coup. Its supporters argue that it wrested the country back from the brink of economic and social disaster.
“My husband hasn’t worked since Morsi became president,” said 44-year old Nazly Ahmed, after she registered her "yes" vote in Cairo’s Imbaba district. “That man didn’t know how to run a country and we suffered. I'm voting to show I'm moving on."
She said she would welcome Sisi’s candidacy in the country’s upcoming presidential elections. “They replaced a pilot [Mubarak] with a donkey. Now, we need a general,” she said.
The Muslim Brotherhood called for a boycott of the vote, and encouraged its supporters to protest the draft constitution, which deletes provisions relating to the role of Islamic jurisprudence in Egyptian law. The document also entrenches the privileges of the military and the judiciary, two institutions which contributed to Morsi’s downfall.
Other voices calling for a boycott include the center-left Islamist party Strong Egypt, and the April 6th Youth Movement, a key force behind the country’s 2011 revolution.
Walking past polling stations in downtown Cairo, one member of the Brotherhood told GlobalPost that his own boycott of the vote was motivated by a sense of futility in formal politics.
“There’s blood everywhere — how do we vote now?” he sighed. “The army played a game with the people, and they fell for it. You lose if you vote 'yes,' you lose if you vote 'no.' They killed democracy in Egypt.”
In the months since Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s military-backed authorities have led an aggressive crackdown on the former president’s supporters, and other voices critical of the new government. Over 1000 Morsi supporters have been killed in the worst political violence in the country’s history. Egypt’s security services have led five mass killings since July, including one in east Cairo where at least 904 people died after riot police forcibly dispersed a pro-Morsi encampment.
In addition to the 11 killed Tuesday in clashes between government opponents and security forces, at least 140 people were arrested nationwide.