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Egypt Holding Key Vote On Constitution

10:41 AM, Jan 14, 2014   |    comments
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Sarah Lynch, Special for USA TODAY

CAIRO - Egyptian voters hit the polls Tuesday to have their say over a proposed new draft of the nation's constitution that may usher in fresh elections by the summer.

The referendum marks the first time Egyptian voters have cast their ballots since a summer coup that ousted the country's first freely elected president and is seen as a test of legitimacy for Egypt's post-coup leaders.

Moments before the poll began, a violent blast resounded across the capital. The explosion took place at a court complex in the Imbaba district, according to Reuters. No casualties were immediately reported.

Ahead of the vote, some expected violence in a country where political divisions run deep and the Muslim Brotherhood, which controlled the country last year, is now outlawed as a terrorist organization.

"There is a chance there will be a lot of violence on referendum day and it will disrupt the holding of the referendum," said Michele Dunne, a senior associate in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C.

"But most likely, the referendum will be held, it will carry," she said.

Security forces have been deployed at polling stations nationwide to secure the vote, which is part of a political plan announced last August by Egypt's army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The transitional plan forced Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi from power. It suspended the 2012 constitution, which was drafted during Morsi's one-year rule. Sisi put an interim president in place, dissolved the legislature and called for a new ruling document.

Pending approval of the new constitutional draft, which was written by a 50-member committee, fresh presidential and parliamentary elections are expected to take place by the summer.

"We believe strongly that this constitution is much, much better than any previous constitution," said Mohamed Abou El Ghar, head of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party and a member of the constitution-drafting team. "But a successful constitution doesn't mean we already finished the road map."

Any irregularity in the voting procedure would be an extremely bad sign for chances of Egypt achieving democracy, he said, noting that voter turnout is also important.

Egyptians expatriates last week cast their ballots at embassies worldwide, and Egyptians at home are voting on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Zaid Al-Ali, a senior advisor on constitution building at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said the proposed constitution being voted on this week is "nominally better" for democracy than the 2012 charter.

Some major changes are that the role of religion has been significantly reduced and that it "superficially provides more rights to people" and more clarity about what those rights are, he said. But the constitution does almost nothing to ensure those rights will be protected.

"The problem has always been that the rights that do exist are not being enforced... and there's nothing in this text that is going to change that," he said.

In the three years since an uprising ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and launched Egypt on a turbulent road to democracy, this constitution is "just one in a long series of missed opportunities," Al-Ali added.

This week's vote, however, is not as much about the charter as it is about the legitimacy of Egypt's ruling regime, said Mustapha Al Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University.

"This is the first electoral test for the transitional government following the removal of Dr. Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brothers," said Al Sayyid, who also teaches at the American University in Cairo.

For six months, Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood-led supporters have opposed the nation's current leaders - with Al Sisi believed to be ruling behind the scenes - for taking charge illegally.

"The most powerful argument of the Muslim Brothers was that this regime is illegal, unconstitutional and does not enjoy popular support," Al Sayyid said. "A massive approval of the constitution would be seen as an important indicator of the legitimacy and popularity of this regime, and therefore the position of the Muslim Brothers - opposing the regime - would be seen as unfounded."

In a late December poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research (Baseera), 76% of respondents said they intended to vote in the referendum. Of those, 74% said they would vote in favor of the draft while 3% would vote "no," and 23% were undecided.

Posters promoting a "yes" vote are prevalent along major streets in the capital while opposition to the charter is less evident. And many Egyptians will vote "yes" because they believe the passing of this draft constitutes an important step for the country to regain stability, analysts said.

"The constitution will almost certainly pass because those who are against it will boycott rather than show up and vote 'no,'" said Dunne, in Washington, D.C.

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