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Egypt rights groups say constitution vote marred

By Hamza Hendawi

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 16 2012 11:08 a.m. MST

Egyptian riot police walk past a military tank guarding the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. Key Egyptian rights groups called Sunday for a repeat of the first round of the constitutional referendum, alleging the vote was marred by widespread violations. Islamists who back the disputed charter claimed they were in the lead with a majority of “yes” votes.

Hassan Ammar, Associated Press

CAIRO — Key Egyptian rights groups called Sunday for a repeat of the first round of the constitutional referendum, alleging the vote was marred by widespread violations. Islamists who back the disputed charter claimed they were in the lead with a majority of "yes" votes, though official results have not been announced.

Representatives of the seven groups charged that there was insufficient supervision by judges in Saturday's vote in 10 of Egypt's 27 provinces and independent monitors were prevented from witnessing vote counts.

The representatives told a news conference that they had reports of individuals falsely identifying themselves as judges, of women prevented from voting and that members of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood were allowed inside polling stations. They also complained that some polling centers closed earlier than scheduled and that Christians were denied entry to polling stations.

Mohamed ElBaradei, Egypt's best known reform leader, was as frustrated by how the referendum was run as the rights groups.

"Is a referendum held under insufficient judicial supervision, clearly tenuous security and the violence and violations we are witnessing the road to stability or playing with the country's destiny? the Nobel Peace Laureate and former U.N. nuclear agency chief wrote on his Twitter account.

The vote capped a near two-year struggle over Egypt's identity since the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. The latest crisis over the charter evolved into a fight — deadly at times — over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under Morsi's Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.

Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed to help the police protect polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi's supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.

The draft would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, or Islamic law, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter's drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.

According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style "religious police" to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft — regardless of what the laws on the books say.

For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter's parliamentary elections. Morsi rejected opposition demands that he cancel the referendum.

A statement by the seven rights groups called on the election commission to avoid the same type of violations in the second round and repeat the first round.

"The vote counting took place took place in darkness," said Negad Borai, the head of one of the groups. He alleged the election commission did not investigate thousands of complaints on alleged violations and irregularities.

The second and final round of voting on the charter is planned for Saturday Dec. 22.

Some of the charges made by the seven groups were echoed in a statement issued by the National Council for Human Rights, a state agency, adding weight to the claims. It added that some polling centers did not have voters' lists, that vote-buying took place outside polling centers and that monitors' permits to be at polling stations were not recognized.

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