|Many fear the Muslim Brotherhood and former ruling NDP will dominate a swift post-referendum election [AFP]
Long lines, orderly queues and a mostly calm and jubilant atmosphere marked Egypt's first nationwide vote since a popular uprising forced Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's long-time president, to step down in February, leaving the country without a constitution and under the control of an unelected military council.
Observers reported an unprecedented turnout across the country, as thousands came out on Saturday to vote "yes" or "no" on a package of controversial constitutional amendments that may set the stage for parliamentary elections within months. The results are scheduled to be released on Sunday.
The country's most established political forces - Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood - are both pushing for approval, while most of the opposition parties and the youth movement want the amendments defeated.
But even those who feared the amendments would pass, paving the way for a fast election likely dominated by the NDP and the Brotherhood, seemed happy to cast a vote that, for the first time, they believed would actually be counted.
"Happy, ecstatic, delirious, laughing, crying," Karim Beshara, who had pledged to vote against the amendments, wrote on Twitter. "This is definitely the country I was fighting for and it is totally worth it."
In Cairo, voters chanting "Those times are past us!" reportedly ejected Abdel Azim Wazeer, a local governor, from a polling station after he attempted to cut in line.
But the excitement over casting what many considered their first real vote was marred by an attack on Mohamed ElBaradei, the prominent reform advocate, and the arrest of two lawyers at a polling station in Cairo.
Observers also reported electoral irregularities across the country: campaigning inside polling places, indelible ink that was easily washed off, and ballots that lacked official stamps.
ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief who recently announced his campaign for president, was walking toward a polling station in the Moqattam neighbourhood in Cairo surrounded by supporters when a crowd of dozens approached, chanting "We don’t want you! We don’t want you!"
Video showed ElBaradei and his entourage being pelted by stones as they ducked into a waiting SUV that quickly drove them away.
Liam Stack, a freelance journalist who described the scene on Twitter, said military police arrived after the mob had already dissipated.
In a scene that echoed the angry anti-foreigner sentiment pervasive among Mubarak supporters during the uprising, the officers moved to protect a "foreign woman", possibly a journalist, he said, who had been chased down the street by the mob, including youths who shouted "Out! Out!"
"We don't want ElBaradei or anyone from outside Egypt," one woman told Stack. "Our country is the best country in the world."
ElBaradei, on his Twitter account, wrote that he and his family, who did not have guards, had been attacked by organised "thugs" and that it was irresponsible to hold a referendum in such a "lack of security".
Sally Moore, an ElBaradei supporter and member of the January 25 Revolution Youth Committee, told Al Jazeera that the mob threw stones and bottles and was "clearly organised".
Military police fired their rifles in the air to disperse the crowd, Moore said, and ElBaradei still planned to vote at another location.
The English-language website for al-Ahram newspaper said the attackers had been identified by "other sources" and were alleged to have links to the security services and the NDP.
Army arrests observers
Elsewhere in Cairo, a lawyer for the Front for the Defense of Egyptian Protesters was arrested by the army while monitoring the voting in the Bab el-Khalq neighbourhood, in the eastern part of the capital.
Ragia Omran was inside a courthouse being used as a polling place when an army officer told her to leave, according to Mona Hamed of the Nadeem Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
A judge present to oversee the voting vouched for Omran and said she was helping him, and the officer returned to his post.
Later, Omran stepped outside to make a phone call and was apparently arrested. She could be heard saying "Let me go, let me go," before the call ended, Hamed said.
Omran's sister, Dana, also a lawyer, was detained with her. Both were taken to the nearby Cairo Security Directorate, and lawyers who arrived at the building were still waiting to receive an update on the Omrans' situation late on Saturday night.
Role of religion
In Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, observers gave anecdotal accounts of a high turnout among those who opposed the amendments.
The Muslim Brotherhood maintains a strong network in Alexandria, but Al Jazeera’s Adam Makary reported that there was little obvious support for the referendum in the coastal city.
Other religious groups had reportedly invoked Islam to convince voters to approve the amendments, telling them it was against sharia to vote no, according to several reports.
Conservative Muslims in the port city of Suez gathered outside numerous polling stations, shouting their support for a "yes" vote, said Manar Mohsen, who was volunteering as a poll monitor for the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights.
Mohsen said the men were probably members of the strict Salafi school of Islam, judging by their appearance, and that they were telling voters, falsely, that they should vote "yes" to keep Article Two of the constitution, which declares that sharia should be the basis of Egyptian law.
They also told voters to approve the amendments if they wanted to keep Coptic Christians out of government, Mohsen said.
Others who gathered at polling places in Suez seemed to be unaware of what the amendments would actually do, she said.
Some believed that voting "yes" would cancel Egypt’s state of emergency; in fact, the amendments would only limit the president’s power to declare one. Others thought a "yes" vote would dissolve Egypt’s State Security Investigations bureau, but it was actually disbanded on Tuesday.
The voting process itself, Mohsen said, went smoothly. She did not witness any serious violations, though she said she was able to use simple hand sanitizer to remove the supposedly indelible pink ink meant to prevent repeat voting.
She and fellow volunteers also had to ask an army officer to eject a man handing out flyers inside a polling station that urged voters to approve the amendments and declared that Islam was the religion of the state.
The officer - who should not have been inside the polling station, according to electoral rules - apologised for not removing the man sooner.
"It seemed like he already knew this was wrong, he just didn't take action before," Mohsen said.
Access to polling stations for journalists and independent observers also seemed to be good. Sarah Sirgany, an editor for the Daily News Egypt who was also in Suez, said that she visited five polling stations and was allowed to enter all but one, where the judge in charge refused to let her inside.
The committee overseeing the referendum had declared that those holding press identification cards would be granted access to polling stations, but the judge told Sirgany she needed a "special permit". Another judge showed her a declaration from the committee that made no mention of press cards.
There was a "huge" turnout in Suez, Sirgany said, and many men who appeared to be conservative Muslims handing out flyers urging a yes vote.
"People who voted yes said they wanted stability, people who voted no said they want a new constitution," she said.
In remote western Egypt, voting proceeded calmly in the oasis towns of Farafra, Kharga and Dakhla, said Wael Thabet, who works in the area for the National White Desert Protectorate and founded a youth organisation there.
The NDP has long been a strong force among Farafra's less than 10,000 inhabitants, Thabet said, and the town was likely to swing in favor of the amendments.
But the "yes" vote there seemed to stem from the perception that a newly amended constitution will ensure stability for Egypt, not for the religious reasons reported in Suez. The Muslim Brotherhood has very little presence in Farafra, Thabet said.
In Dakhla and Kharga, towns both home to more than 100,000 people, Thabet said there seemed to be a larger movement against the amendments. Those against the referendum fear that a "yes" vote will allow the NDP to swiftly return to power, he said.
Despite the irregularities, the election still marked a step forward from the parliamentary vote held just four months ago, which was characterised by reports of ballot stuffing, vote rigging and thuggery, and delivered the NDP a near-total sweep of parliament.
State media reported that voting hours had been extended from 7pm to 9pm in the Qena governorate, which includes Luxor, and the commission running the referendum said polling stations would remain open throughout the country if people were still waiting to vote.
Amr Shalakany, a law professor at the American University in Cairo who observed the voting in Fayoum, near Cairo, said excited voters there had waited patiently in line, and that there were only "very minor irregularities".
Army and police officers who were supposed to guard polling stations from the outside often stood guard inside, he said, but they did not appear to be pressuring voters.
Shalakany called the referendum vote "clean" - he was casting a ballot for the first time, believing his vote would finally be counted - but not fair.
"Most people who are going have not had enough time to form an opinion, they've been rushed into this," he said.
"The only two political parties capable of mobilising on the ground have gone down to the basest level ... which is appealing to fear, fear of the unknown."
A "no" vote would not lead to instability, he argued. If the referendum is defeated, the military council would likely make a declaration of constitutional principles, as Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former president, and the "free officers" did after the 1952 coup, he said.
The declaration would guarantee certain civil liberties and lay out a road map that would involve appointing an interim president or presidential council to rule the country.
Under the interim leadership, voters would elect a constitutional assembly to draft an entirely new constitution, which would then be subject to a national referendum. Only then would presidential and parliamentary elections be held.
"We cannot rush into election," he said.
Source: Al Jazeera