CAIRO — Egypt’s Islamist-backed constitution received a “yes” majority in a final round of voting on a referendum that saw a low voter turnout, but the deep divisions it has opened up threaten to fuel continued turmoil.
Passage is a victory for Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, but a costly one. The bruising battle over the past month stripped away hope that the long-awaited constitution would bring a national consensus on the path Egypt will take after shedding its autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
Instead, Morsi disillusioned many non-Islamists who had once backed him and has become more reliant on his core support in the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Hard-liners in his camp are determined to implement provisions for stricter rule by Islamic law in the charter, which is likely to further fuel divisions.
Saturday’s voting in 17 of Egypt’s 27 provinces was the second and final round of the referendum. Preliminary results released early Sunday by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood showed that 71.4 percent of those who voted Saturday said “yes” after 95.5 percent of the ballots were counted. Only about eight million of the 25 million Egyptians eligible to vote – a turnout of about 30 percent – cast their ballots.
The Brotherhood has accurately predicted election results in the past by tallying results provided by its representatives at polling centers.
In the first round of voting, about 56 percent said “yes” to the charter. The turnout then was about 32 percent.
The results of the two rounds mean the referendum was approved by about 63 percent.
Morsi’s liberal and secular opposition now faces the task of trying to organize the significant portion of the population angered by what it sees as attempts by Morsi and the Brotherhood to gain a lock on political power. The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said it would now start rallying for elections for the lawmaking, lower house of parliament, expected early next year.
“We feel more empowered because of the referendum. We proved that at least we are half of society (that) doesn’t approve of all this. We will build on it,” the Front’s spokesman, Khaled Daoud, said. Still, he said, there was “no appetite” at the moment for further street protests.
The new constitution would come into effect once official results are announced, expected in several days. When they are, Morsi is expected to call for the election of parliament’s lawmaking, lower chamber no more than two months later.
In a sign of disarray in Morsi’s administration, his vice president and – possibly – the central bank governor resigned during Saturday’s voting. Vice President Mahmoud Mekki’s resignation had been expected since his post is eliminated under the new constitution. But its hasty submission even before the charter has been sealed and his own resignation statement suggested it was linked to Morsi’s policies.
“I have realized a while ago that the nature of politics (doesn’t) suit my professional background as a judge,” his resignation letter, read on state TV, said. Mekki said he had first submitted his resignation last month but events forced him to stay on.
The status of Central Bank Governor Farouq el-Oqdah was murkier. State TV first reported his resignation, then soon after reported the Cabinet denied he has stepped down in a possible sign of confusion. El-Oqdah, in his post since 2003, has reportedly been seeking to step down but the administration was trying to convince him to stay on.
The confusion over el-Oqdah’s status comes at a time when the government is eager to show some stability in the economy as the Egyptian pound has been sliding and a much-needed $4.8 billion loan from the IMF has been postponed.
Over the past month, seven of Morsi’s 17 top advisers and the one Christian among his top four aides resigned. Like Mekki, they said they had never been consulted in advance on any of the president’s moves, including his Nov. 22 decrees, since rescinded, that granted himself near absolute powers.
Those decrees sparked large street protests by hundreds of thousands around the country, bringing counter-rallies by Islamists.
The turmoil was further fueled with a Constituent Assembly almost entirely made up of Islamists finalized the constitution draft in the dead of night amid a boycott by liberals and Christians. Rallies turned violent. Brotherhood offices were attacked, and Islamists attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace in Cairo leading to clashes that left 10 dead.
The turmoil opened up a vein of bitterness that the polarizing constitution will do little to close. Morsi opponents accused him of seeking to create a new Mubarak-style autocracy. The Brotherhood accused his rivals of being former Mubarak officials trying to topple an elected president and return to power. Islamists branded opponents “infidels” and vowed they will never accept anything but “God’s law” in Egypt.
Both rounds of voting saw claims by the opposition and rights groups of voting violations. On Saturday, they said violations ranged from polling stations opening late to Islamists seeking to influence voters to say “yes.” The official MENA news agency said at least two judges have been removed for coercing voters to cast “yes” ballots.
The opposition’s talk of now taking the contest to the parliamentary elections represented a shift in the conflict – an implicit gamble that the opposition can try to compete under rules that the Islamists have set.