Turnout was high Saturday morning at polling stations in several Cairo neighborhoods, where Egyptians are deciding whether to approve their country’s controversial draft constitution.
The Egyptian government claims the document — written mainly by Islamist politicians — provides a badly needed road map for the country. But opposition leaders charge the new constitution allows Islamic scholars to whittle away at the country’s secular legal system and leaves too much power in the hands of the president and military.
Just about all of the voters we’ve talked to so far said the had little time to peruse the hastily drafted, 234-article constitution. For them, the vote was more about saying “yes” or “no” to President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood.
Some Egyptians were having a hard time casting ballots at all. They were sent text messages by election officials on where to vote, but when they showed up at those polling stations, the supervisors informed them their names weren’t on the list. They argued to no avail to be let in anyway.
Another problem is that many judges who normally would supervise Egyptian elections are boycotting the referendum. They said they oppose the draft constitution because it was drawn up without a national consensus.
The boycott forced election officials to split the voting over two days.
Nor are there Western monitors observing the referendum to ensure it is credible. They were a visible presence during previous elections for parliament and the presidency.
The Westerners were invited by Morsi’s government to return for this election, but declined.
“You’d be walking into a situation where it would be very difficult to be perceived as neutral or independent,” said Les Campbell, who is the Middle East and North Africa director at the D.C.-based National Democratic Institute. His group monitored Egyptian parliamentary and presidential elections over the past year.
Campbell said it would have made more sense to delay the poll.
“They shouldn’t be trying to jam through a document that almost inevitably will be revisited within a few months anyway,” he explained. “This is just a power play, it’s offending people, it’s setting people off in the wrong direction. It’s causing bitterness and they should pull back.
Morsi’s government claims that Egyptian law requires them to hold the vote now.
The second and final stage of the referendum will be held next Saturday.