The referendum on Wednesday asks voters to decide whether a government proposal to allow multi-party presidential elections should be incorporated into the constitution. Official results are expected on Thursday afternoon.

Hisham Kasim, vice-president of the opposition al-Ghad party and editor-in-chief of the party newspaper Al-Masri al-Youm, said he had always voted against President Hosni Mubarak in previous referendums but on Wednesday would boycott the vote.

"I am a member of this [al-Ghad] party and I will boycott the referendum today. This will mark the first time I do this," he told Aljazeera.net.

One voter ignored the opposition's call for a boycott and headed to the polls, allowing an Aljazeera.net reporter to follow her through much of the electoral process.

Rania Maged, 33, who is not a registered voter, went to her local police station at about 10:30am for instructions on how to use her national identity card to vote and found 30-40 other hopeful voters also waiting for information.

"I decided to vote because the referendum is marking a turning point in the political history of our country," she told Aljazeera.net.

She was directed to a polling station in a school in the Heliopolis district of Cairo. A handful of voters were present.

Aljazeera.net's reporter was not allowed into the polling booth.

Maged said she voted 'no' to the referendum because she had reservations about the conditions placed on presidential hopefuls. She said an explanation of Article 76 and the proposed amendment were printed on the back of the ballot.

At one point inside the polling station, Maged said, someone approached her to inquire about her vote.

"I found out he was a member of the NDP [National Democratic Party]," she said.

"But a security officer there reprimanded him and told him he was not allowed to talk to voters."

Preparations

Late on Tuesday evening and early on Wednesday morning, volunteers of the ruling NDP could be seen erecting banners proclaiming allegiance to Mubarak, who has led the country since 1981.
 
Passers-by watching the banners go up on Faisal Street, a kilometre from the Pyramids, shrugged and walked on.
 
"What voting?" asked Ahmed Ali, 37, a building concierge and father of seven.
 
Ali laughed as he told Aljazeera.net he would not be voting and didn't care to know the results. "Nothing will change," he said.
 
Political gambit

In part, the amendment states a presidential candidate must be a member of an official political party or, if running as an independent, get a minimum of 65 recommendations from elected members of the lower house, 25 from the Shura Council and 10 from local councils from at least 14 governorates.

"Look around you - all Arab leaders are never voted out of power. Either they die or are overthrown"

Samir Ahmad,
Egyptian factory manager

Some political figures think such an amendment is self-defeating, restricting the efficacy of opposition parties. A referendum on the amendment, they say, is a political gambit.
 
"It's all a game, I tell you ... a game," independent presidential hopeful Nawal al-Saadawi told Aljazeera.net.
 
She said that whether Egyptians vote "yes" or "no", the government still comes out the winner.
 
"If you vote 'no', then you demand going back to a single candidate presidential referendum, while if you vote 'yes', you accept the abortive conditions that make it impossible to have competing candidates stand in the elections."
 
Al-Saadawi says she has no choice but to boycott the referendum.
 
"Everybody should boycott the referendum. If all members of the opposition boycott the referendum, it will be exposed for what it is ... just a play-act."
 
Boycott
 
But independent political commentator Khairy Ramadan thinks a boycott by the centre-liberal al-Wafd, Tagamu, Nasserist and al-Ghad (Tomorrow) parties will ultimately hurt Egyptians' interests.

Government supporters have
been making their voices heard

"I am against the boycott because it will not reveal to us the opinion of the people," he told Aljazeera.net.
 
"A boycott will show the political immaturity of the Egyptian population."
 
Ahmed Mousa, deputy editor-in-chief of the pro-government national newspaper Al-Ahram, chided the al-Wafd party for what he called incitement against the state.
 
"This is a grave call and will negatively influence the political atmosphere in Egypt," he said.
 
Indifference

 
Although government-run unions and the public sector have promised Egyptians will cast their vote en masse, the mood on the street is indifferent.

"I am against the boycott because it will not reveal to us the opinion of the people. A boycott will show the political immaturity of the Egyptian population"

Khairy Ramadan,
Political commentator

"We can't win – the Egyptian people can't win," said a 39-year-old surgeon who said he would not vote on the referendum.
 
"No one can take power from Mubarak, and these opposition parties are a joke."
 
He says he has lost hope in the political process and most of his friends are apathetic about reform.
 
Samir Ahmad, a manager at a private-sector factory, says Egypt is like all the other Arab countries.
 
"Look around you - all Arab leaders are never voted out of power. Either they die or are overthrown."
 
Security forces deploy
 
Egyptian security forces on Wednesday were taking precautions to ensure the voting goes smoothly. By dawn, several armoured trucks could be seen deploying throughout Cairo. Demonstrations by all parties - government and opposition - were prohibited on Wednesday.
 
In the central Tahrir area of Cairo - less than a few hundred metres from the People's Assembly - riot police carrying rifles were deploying.

Egypt has been rocked by
anti-government demonstrations

"The country is going to be upside down in a few hours," said Fadi Mahmoud as he left a mosque shortly after dawn prayers in the posh district of Dokki.

He said he was worried there may be a massive demonstration by anti-government groups.
 
But demonstrations notwithstanding, the government is upbeat. Late on Tuesday evening, Mubarak addressed the nation, saying: "The new amendment to the constitution is a categorical move on the road of political reforms."
 
"Look, this is historic," Mousa said. "This is the first time we are talking about multi-candidate presidential elections ... it has
never happened in Egypt's modern history.
 
"The citizens know their interests. They will show up at the polling stations in great numbers."