Egyptians have been flocking to polling stations across the country as millions of voters in the Arab world’s most populous country are urged to participate in a constitutional referendum, the first ballot since the military overthrew Islamist President Mohamed Morsi on July 3.
Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi, who was put in place by the army, called on Egyptians to perform their “national duty” by casting their vote.
Queues of citizens lined at balloting stations that were surrounded by heavy security presence, out of fear that violence may disrupt the polls in which about 53 million people can participate in.
Home-grown initiative, Shayfenkom, or “We are Watching you” which tracks violations, told Al Jazeera that the process is going on smoothly. State-run news agency Ahram reported that a couple of judges were dismissed for influencing citizens to vote against the constitution, or blocking voters.
Judges at several polling stations said unofficially that between 25 and 40 percent of registered voters turned out on Tuesday, but those numbers are hardly a representative sample.
|Referendums since 2011|
March 19, 2011 : First referendum since 2011’s toppling of Hosni Mubarak, on limited amendments to 1971 charter.
December 2012 : Egyptians voted on an Islamist-backed constitution Turnout rate was 32.9% of which 63.8% voted in favour of the charter.
14 January 2013 : Army-backed constitution is voted on in a referendum, amid wide media campaigns promoting it while anti-charter activists are detained.
While turnout rate is hard to predict, a landslide victory of the army-backed charter is a given, and can spawn to a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who led the oust of the first democratically elected president.
The government has pledged “zero tolerance” against any bid to disrupt balloting, with about 200,000 security forces being deployed to protect polling stations, according to local media.
At least 11 people were killed in sporadic clashes outside Cairo between Morsi supporters and police and anti-Morsi groups, security officials said.
The violence highlighted the government’s precarious grip on the country, still reeling from Morsi’s ouster and a bloody crackdown on his supporters.
An Islamist coalition led by the former president’s Muslim Brotherhood had urged protests and a boycott of the two-day vote, which concludes on Wednesday.
But two hours before the balloting started, a bomb exploded near a court in Giza’s poor neighbourhood of Imbaba. The attack, which has left no casualties, mirrors the state of violence that has recently gripped the country and exacerbated its worst political division in decades.
Local media also reported that gunmen had fired at a church in Fayoum, south-east of the capital, Cairo. No casualties were reported.
Security forces used tear-gas to disperse rallies in the districts of Giza, Alexandria and Al-Sharkiyah staged by anti-coup protesters, mainly comprising of Brotherhood sympathisers.
Campaigns promoting the charter have drowned out voices criticising it, mostly from anti-coup protesters deeming the text to strengthen state institutions that defied Morsi: the military, the police and the judiciary.
Brotherhood, which was designated as a terrorist organisation by the military-backed leaders, has rejected the proposed constitution and vowed to boycott the referendum.
Hisham Farid, a businessman voting in Mohandiseen said: “Enough. After the last three years, enough. The nation can’t continue like this. We need a government that can work on security and the economy. This constitution is good, it is civilian, it is for all Egyptians, not just for the Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood].”
Sisi’s presidential bid
Analysts say the referendum is also turning out to be a vote on the popularity of Sisi, the man whose image features on posters across Cairo.
His Islamist foes see Sisi as the mastermind of a coup that kindled the worst internal strife in Egypt’s modern history and brought back what critics call a police state.
But many Egyptians are weary of the political upheaval that has gripped Egypt and shattered its economy since they rose up to topple autocrat Hosni Mubarak in 2011, and they view Sisi as a decisive figure who can reinstate stability.
If he runs for president, Sisi is widely expected to win.
Pictures circulating on social media showed groups of citizens carrying posters of Sisi while chanting slogans of support.
Umm Mostafa, a housewife in Agouza, said she’s voting yes because of Sisi. “He will unite the nation. Muslims, Christians, we all drink from the Nile. We need a strong man to protect the nation and end the strife.”
The vote, set to take place through Wednesday, comes against the backdrop of weeks of violent clashes, which the military-backed government has blamed on Morsi’s now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.
This will be the third time Egyptians have voted on constitutional arrangements since the historic uprising against Mubarak, a former air force chief, in January 2011, and overall the sixth time they have gone to the polls since his downfall.
The constitution will replace one signed into law by Morsi a little more than a year ago after it was approved in a referendum.
In a leaked audio recording Sisi addressed his handling of the new constitution. In an interview with al-Masri al-youm newspaper, which took place several months ago, he said the entire text should be rewritten, not modified.
He said simply modifying would be to cheat the system.