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Egyptians begin voting on constitution - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a referendum on Egypt's new constitution in Cairo on January 14, 2014. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

A woman casts her vote at a polling station during a referendum on Egypt’s new constitution in Cairo on January 14, 2014. Egyptians began voting on Tuesday in a constitutional referendum, the first ballot since the military overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Mursi. (Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—Amid a heightened security atmosphere across the country on Tuesday, Egyptians began voting in a referendum over amendments to the country’s 2012 constitution, in a process set to last until Wednesday evening.

More than 50 million voters are expected to line up at 3,367 polling stations for a vote that is seen as the first major step in the military-backed political roadmap for the country that was implemented following the ouster of former President Mohamed Mursi last July.

Hisham Mokhtar, a member of the Supreme Committee for Elections, a body set up in September by interim President Adly Mansour to oversee the amendments to the constitution and the subsequent referendum, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “voting will begin at 9am and end on 9pm on the first day, and will extend on the second day until the last voter” has cast their ballot.

According to the Egyptian military, a total of 160,000 troops have been deployed to provide security, with tensions mounting as the vote gets underway following a spate of recent bombings in the country, which the interim government has blamed on the Muslim Brotherhood.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat, an official in the country’s Finance Ministry said that the costs of overseeing the referendum are set to rise 1.2 billion Egyptian pounds (173 million US dollars) over the referendum on the 2012 constitution, mainly as a result of the beefed up security measures taken this time.

Shortly before polls opened at 9am, an explosive device went off outside a courthouse in the working-class Cairo neighborhood of Imababa. The explosion damaged the front of the building, shattering windows in nearby buildings. No casualties or fatalities have been reported.

With the referendum crucial in ratifying the mandates of both the military and the interim government, both are relying heavily on a “yes” vote and a high turnout to give backing to their decision to depose Mursi in July and the subsequent arrests of leadership figures from his group, the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the ban placed on the group and its designation as a terrorist organization in December.

The Brotherhood has called for a boycott of the vote.

Interim President Adly Mansour, addressing himself to Egyptians after casting his own ballot this morning, said: “You must come out and vote to prove to those behind the dark terrorism that you are not afraid.”

Egyptians will be casting a “yes” or a “no” vote on the amendments made to the constitution put forward by forward President Mohamed Mursi in 2012, the country’s sixth nationwide vote since former President Hosni Mubarak was ousted following the 2011 revolution.

Changes to the 2012 constitution include provisions that the appointment of country’s defense minister—a post currently held by the widely popular Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi—be approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), for the first eight years after the constitution is ratified. It also places the responsibility of appointing the country’s prosecutor-general with the Supreme Judicial Council, whereas Mursi’s 2012 constitution gave that responsibility to the president. The new constitution also imposes a ban on any political parties “formed on the basis of religion.” The second article of the 2012 constitution, pertaining to the principles of Islamic Shari’a law being the main source of legislation, has also been retained, but an additional article seeking to define those principles—at the time seen as a possible way to use a more stringent form of Shari’a law more palatable to the Brotherhood and its conservative Salafist allies—has been removed.

Egyptians living abroad cast their votes on the referendum last week, with voting in absentia closing on Sunday.

The reaction to the vote has been highly polarized, with supporters of ousted President Mursi pointing to what they believed was a low turnout, with only 15 percent of those eligible to vote actually doing so.

The Supreme Committee for Elections, however, has said that the vote had drawn some 104,000 voters abroad, compared to the 93,000 voters who cast their ballots on the 2012 constitution put forward by Mursi.

Speaking at a State Information Service press conference, Mokhtar said counting of the domestic vote would begin immediately after voting has closed on Wednesday. He expected the results to be announced within 72 hours after voting ends.

The Supreme Committee for Elections said in a statement that the vote will be monitored by 67 domestic human rights organizations, represented by a total of 83,467 individuals.

The Board of Directors of the Egyptian Judges’ Club, a professional organization for members of the country’s judiciary, has also announced that it will be monitoring the vote.

International observers from the European Union and the UK-based anti-corruption organization Transparency International have been arriving in Cairo to monitor the referendum and ensure voting transparency.

Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi has announced that the military has made available 1,000 planes to transport judges to their judicial committees set up to monitor the voting in rural and remote areas with poor transport infrastructure.

Mohamed Shaaban contributed reporting.