CAIRO – Egyptians voted on a draft constitution Tuesday, in a referendum that will decide whether the country adopts a text drawn up under the military-backed interim government that ousted Egypt's Islamist president in a July coup.
Here are five things to know about the vote.
1. SIXTH TIME IS A CHARM
Before this week's vote, Egyptians have gone to the polls five times since the 2011 revolution that toppled autocrat Hosni Mubarak. There has been a referendum in March 2011 on an interim constitution. That vote was followed by parliamentary elections; presidential elections with a runoff in June 2012 that propelled the Islamist Mohammed Morsi to power; and a December 2012 referendum that approved a constitution rushed through under Morsi's rule. The first poll was met with a great deal of enthusiasm as Egyptians rejoiced in being able to vote freely after decades of authoritarian rule and fraudulent balloting. After widespread disappointment with Morsi's administration, he was ousted in a popularly backed coup, and many voters said they saw this week's vote as a do-over.
2. THE STAKES ARE HIGH
The vote is officially for a revised constitution that would eliminate Morsi's Islamist-drafted charter and enshrine the military's vision of their nation's future. But the balloting is also widely seen as a referendum on whether the military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led the coup against Morsi, should himself run for president. The military-installed government that assumed power after the coup is looking for a "yes" majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for el-Sissi to run for president later this year. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation's highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.
3. FEARS OF VIOLENCE
Turnout was relatively high, especially in Cairo and other big cities, as the polls opened, with lines of dozens of jubilant voters in some areas, but worries about Islamic militant violence kept many people at home after the bombings and gunbattles that followed Morsi's ouster. Nearly 400,000 soldiers and policemen fanned out across the nation to protect polling stations and voters. 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, while grim faced, black-clad commandos stood guard outside polling centers. Despite the tight security, clashes broke out in Cairo and several other cities, leaving at least 11 people dead.
4. CHARTER REVISION
The new charter has been heavily amended from the Morsi-era version, which was among the key catalysts of anger over his administration. Liberal and secular activists accused the Islamists of trying to dominate power and impose their beliefs and many boycotted the process although the previous document was itself approved in a December 2012 referendum. The previous draft focused more on issues related to Islamic law, with fewer stipulations for specific rights for women and minorities, but the basic framework of the two is similar. The new charter would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. 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.
5. WHAT'S NEXT
The adoption of the draft constitution will be taken as an endorsement of the post-coup political roadmap. But it is not likely though to stop the chaos that has engulfed Egypt or the near daily street protests by Morsi supporters, which have often ended violently. But if this week's vote proves to be free of fraud, Egypt may win back a significant amount of goodwill from its traditional Western backers as well as head off criticism of a potential el-Sissi presidential run.
The Muslim Brotherhood, now branded as a terrorist group, called for a boycott of the vote and vowed mass demonstrations to disrupt it. But not one protest on Tuesday had more than 200-300 people, most teenagers and young men. Once Egypt's most powerful political force, the fundamentalist group has been decimated by a military crackdown. Morsi and most of its other leaders are in jail and thousands have been killed during clashes and the razing of two protest camps last year. Morsi faces three separate trials on charges that carry the death penalty.