CAIRO — Egyptians formed long lines Tuesday outside polling stations across much of the country to vote on a new constitution that represents a key milestone in a military-backed roadmap put in place after the ouster of Egypt’s Islamist president in a coup last July.
The balloting potentially deals a another heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood’s campaign for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and paves the way for a likely presidential run by the nation’s top general, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
A massive security operation was under way to protect polling stations and voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to Morsi, with 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen deployed across the nation of some 90 million people. Cars were prevented from parking or driving by polling stations and women were searched by female police officers. Military helicopters hovered over Cairo and other major cities.
In the days running up to the vote, Egypt looked more like a country going to war rather than one preparing for a supposed transition to democratic rule. The government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as the key to the nation’s security and stability over which there can be no dissent.
Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards urged Egyptians to vote “yes.” Posters and campaigns urging a “no” vote have led to arrests.
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the authoritarian Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others possibly the freest ever seen in Egypt. While unlikely to be stained by fraud, the vote is taking place at a time when many of the freedoms won in the uprising that toppled Mubarak have vanished in the months since Morsi was removed after just one year in office.
Shortly before polls opened at 9 p.m., an explosive device went off outside a Cairo courthouse in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba. The blast damaged the building’s front and shattered windows in nearby buildings but caused no casualties.
Long lines of voters began to form nearly two hours before polling stations opened in some Cairo districts, including Imbaba, where the blast promptly whipped up anti-Brotherhood sentiment with chants and shouting against the Islamist group.
Women and the elderly were heavily represented in most voters’ lines in Cairo. The mood was generally upbeat, hostile toward the Brotherhood and hopeful that the charter would bring better days.
“The dogs, the traitors!” shouted a man on a motorcycle as he passed by the Imbaba courthouse after the blast. A line of voters in a nearby polling station chanted in unison: “Long live Egypt!”
A crowd of several hundred angry residents gathered outside the courthouse, some carrying posters of el-Sissi. “Everyone must go now and vote to show those dogs, the Brothers,” shouted one man.
Outside a nearby polling station, 67-year-old Alaa al-Nabi Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment — that Egyptians have consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood’s year-long rule to the past.
“I am here to send a message to the world and to those who hate Egypt that we want to live and get our country back on its feet,” he said.
Another voter, Ismail Mustafa, said he was voting “yes” in the hope of ending the turmoil that has engulfed Egypt since the 2011 ouster of the country’s longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.
“This is it, we have had it. I will vote ‘yes’ even if it is the last thing I do,” Mustafa said.
Among scores of voters interviewed by The Associated Press by midday Tuesday, no one said he or she had voted against the charter.
The Tuesday and Wednesday balloting is also the first electoral test for the popularly backed coup that ousted Morsi and his Brotherhood.
A comfortable “yes” vote and a respectable turnout would bestow legitimacy on the cascade of events that followed the coup while undermining the Islamists’ argument that Morsi remains the nation’s elected president.
Morsi’s Brotherhood, which is now branded as a terrorist group, has called for a boycott of the vote. Morsi himself is facing three separate trials on charges that carry the death penalty.
The unprecedented security surrounding the vote follows months of violence that authorities have blamed on Islamic militants. In the six months since Morsi’s ouster, there has been an assassination attempt on the interior minister as well as deadly attacks on key security officers, soldiers, policemen and provincial security and military intelligence headquarters.
“You must come out and vote to prove to those behind the dark terrorism that you are not afraid,” Interim President Adly Mansour told reporters after he voted early in the day.
Morsi’s supporters have said they would stage massive demonstrations and have labeled the draft charter a “constitution of blood.” In response, the government has warned it would deal harshly with anyone interfering with the referendum.
There were small demonstrations by Morsi supporters in different parts of the country, but they only attracted dozens of supporters. In one incident, in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo, a pro-Morsi supporter was shot dead as he and about 100 others tried to storm a polling station, a security official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. It was not clear who was behind the shooting.
Most of Egypt’s minority Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have backed the removal of Morsi and the charter in hopes of winning religious freedoms.
“Anyone who was raised in Egypt will choose this constitution,” said Verta Nassif, a 70-year old Christian from Assuit, a stronghold of Islamists and home to a large Christian community south of Cairo.
“We want Egypt to flourish and Muslims and Christians to live together in peace,” said another Assiut voter, Nadia Saleeb, 70.
There was a lone voice of dissent outside another polling station in Assiut.
“El-Sissi is a killer and his constitution is void,” shouted a woman, who left the scene just before a security team arrived to look for her. At a nearby outdoor market, Hany Abdel-Hakeem was arguing with a vendor.
“This constitution is not built on legitimacy and I am boycotting the vote,” he said. “I will not participate in anything I am not convinced of. And if I say anything against it, I will be arrested. Keeping silent is better.”
The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. But it also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals.
The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi’s Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.
“The constitution is not perfect,” said Ameena Abdel-Salam after she cast her ballot in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district. “But we need to move forward and we can fix it later.”