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Egypt holds key vote on country's new charter

By Sarah El Deeb

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Jan. 14 2014 10:12 a.m. MST

Egyptians women show their inked fingers after casting their votes at a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. Egyptians are voting on a draft for their country's new constitution that represents a key milestone in a military-backed roadmap put in place after President Mohammed Morsi was overthrown in a popularly backed coup last July.

Amr Nabil, Associated Press

CAIRO — Military helicopters buzzed overhead and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police were deployed as Egyptians voted Tuesday on a new constitution in a referendum that will pave the way for a likely presidential run by the nation's top general months after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

The two-day balloting is a key milestone in a military-backed political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the July coup that has left the Arab world's most populous nation sharply divided between Brotherhood supporters in one camp, and the military, security forces and their supporters in the other.

It is taking place in a climate of fear and paranoia, with authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant segment of the population showing little or no tolerance for dissent. Campaigning for a "no" vote risked arrest by the police and Egyptians who have publicized their opposition to the charter, even just parts of it, are quickly labeled as traitors or closest supporters of Morsi.

Some 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen fanned out across the nation of some 90 million people to protect polling stations and voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to Morsi. 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.

Shortly before polls opened, an explosion struck a Cairo courthouse, damaging its facade and shattering windows in nearby buildings but causing no casualties in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba — a Brotherhood stronghold.

Four people were killed when gunfire broke out between police and gunmen on rooftops as clashes broke out between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces in the southern city of Sohag, according to security officials. Three others were wounded, including a senior police officer.

A Morsi supporter also was shot to death as he and about 100 others tried to storm a polling station in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. It was not clear who was behind the shooting.

In Cairo's working class district of Nahya, pro-Morsi protesters shot at and pelted with rocks a polling station before closing all entrances with chains, scaring away voters and locking election officials inside, Mohammed Seragedeen, the judge in charge of the station, said.

Security forces later fired tear gas to disperse the protesters and allow voting to resume, he said.

The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others widely considered the freest ever seen in Egypt, including the June 2012 balloting won by Morsi. But this vote was tainted by criticism that many of the freedoms won in the anti-Mubarak revolution have vanished amid a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that has spread to others as the military-backed administration tries to suppress all dissent.

The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, 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.

The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.

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