The first voting day in Egypt's constitutional referendum was largely peaceful, and voter turnout appeared to be high. However, there have been a disturbing number of reports of vote-rigging.
Polling places opened in 10 Egyptian provinces on Saturday (15.12.2012) as voters cast their ballots in the country's constitutional referendum. Egyptians in other provinces will have to wait until next week until they vote for or against the new draft constitution.
The election commission announced that high voter turnout led it to call for polls to remain open until 11 p.m. local time, with some members calling for polling places to re-open on Sunday. Egyptians living outside the country will also have two extra days to cast their votes.
The long lines at the polls showed that the groups calling for a boycott of the referendum remained in the minority. The National Salvation Front (NSF), an umbrella group of opposition parties, stuck to its decision to encourage Egyptians to take part in the referendum and vote against the draft constitution.
Judges were lacking
But early on, several non-government organizations and political parties reported numerous voting violations: some polling stations had opened late, at others voters were pressured to change their vote shortly before casting their ballots, and in some cases ballots were already marked ahead of time.
A further violation concerned the supervisory staff at the polling areas. In Egypt's previous elections, each polling station was supervised by a judge. But this time, many judges were striking to protest against President Mohammed Morsi's handling of the judiciary. What effect this lack of supervision will have is still difficult to judge.
Wassam Mohamed, a 40-year-old woman, voted at a polling station in a school in the center of Cairo. "I have some concerns," she said. "There was only one judge at the school to oversee the vote. Everyone else there was a teacher."
In fact, the school had four separate electoral areas. During the parliamentary and presidential elections, each of the four polling stations was supervised by a judge. On Saturday, an observer described the supervisors that replaced the judges as "employees of the state."
Reports from local journalists confirmed that this was not an isolated incident. In other polling stations, school employees were said to have even portrayed themselves as judges, only to be uncovered when they were forced to identify themselves by voters. The NSF said the many violations were an attempt to push through the "constitution of the Muslim Brotherhood."
Accusations against the Muslim Brotherhood
Mohamed voted against the constitution; in her opinion, the document was passed far too quickly. "Nowhere are women's rights mentioned," she said. "They wrote it in an opaque manner, 'according to the law,' but this 'law' was then adopted by a parliament in which the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists have the majority."
For Mohamed, it's also clear that the president is not making independent decisions, but instead is answering to the Brotherhood's religious leader, Mohammed Badie. She said the Muslim Brotherhood is not working for Egypt, but for itself, adding that the organization is undemocratic.
Another voter, 65-year-old Gamal, echoed Mohamed's comments. He also voted against the constitution. "I'm against this referendum, not so much because of the Muslim Brotherhood but because one group is controlling the whole country," he said. "Egypt has more than 40 political parties. How can it be that one party controls everything?" Privately, he said he calls the president "Mohammed Morsi Mubarak."
'For the good of the people'
Other voters, however, held different views. An 80-year-old man wearing a jellabiya, a traditional Egyptian robe, voted for the constitution. In his opinion, all the articles of the constitution have been drawn up for the benefit of the people. He watched the Constitutional Assembly vote on television, and sees the recent protests against the constitution as a threat. Instead, he said, the protesters should just go to the polls and vote against the draft.
The outcome of Saturday's vote is not yet known, as the vote will continue next week. But most experts are expecting a majority for the current draft constitution and success for the Muslim Brotherhood. But the aggressive rhetoric of some of its leading members in recent days shows that the Brotherhood is not expecting an easy or clear victory.
For them, even the act of stoking sectarian tensions between Muslims and Christians seemed to be an acceptable method to mobilize voters on the day of the vote. On their official website, the Brotherhood wrote that Coptic Christians had been sending text messages to voters telling them to vote against the constitution - because they want to establish a Coptic, not an Islamic, state.