CAIRO – Egyptians voted yesterday in a historical referendum that would allow presidential elections to be contested for the first time, Despite opposition groups calling for a boycott saying the referendum wasn’t significant enough.
Egyptians trickled into polling stations adorned with posters of President Hosni Mubarak to say yes or no to a constitutional change replacing the old system of presidential referendums on a single candidate chosen by parliament. Police detained about 10 members of the Kefaya (Enough) protest movement in central Cairo when they tried to hold demonstrations opposing the referendum and the amendment.
As before many recent Kefaya events, large numbers of Mubarak supporters turned up at the same venue to drown out the opposition with chants of "Not enough" and "Yes to Mubarak." Riot police surrounded the Kefaya group while allowing a much larger pro-Mubarak group to move freely.
Opposition groups have long called for reform but say the conditions set in the amended Article 76 of the constitution will secure the post, held by Mubarak since 1981, for his ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).
"Today is a day of mourning. Boycott the referendum on the disaster of 76" read the headline on the front page of the opposition Wafd Party newspaper.
Recognized political parties can field candidates in the presidential elections this September, but in subsequent polls they must first win five percent of the seats in both houses of
parliament — a condition none of them currently meets.
Independent candidates would need support from 65 of the 444 elected
members of the lower house, which is 90 percent dominated by the NDP, among other conditions.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has no legal status but is widely seen as the largest and most organized opposition force, says the aim of the even tougher conditions on independents is to stop the Islamist movement from fielding a candidate.
It was impossible to judge the effectiveness of the boycott as many Egyptian traditionally do not bother to vote anyway.
But the state media and government officials made a major effort to persuade people to take part in the voting.
Voters carrying Egyptian flags, pictures of Mubarak and signs reading "Yes to democracy" got off a bus outside a polling station in the town of Toukh, north of Cairo.
But a young Toukh shopkeeper, who declined to be named, said: "Nobody is really interested in politics. Everybody knows that nothing will change. The only people who will vote are state employees here."
State companies, which employ millions of people, often give their staff the day off on election days and use the company buses to take them to polling stations.
"I will vote later but I won”t agree. The restrictions that are set are not logical. It”s sort of freedom but not full freedom." said Samir Girgis Habashi, 49.
Journalist Omayma el-Arabi said: "We are boycotting, It”s an unconstitutional amendment. There are lots of restrictions."
State television labeled the referendum a "historic moment" and repeated several times a speech in which 77-year-old Mubarak urged Egyptians to vote for the change.
Washington has welcomed the move as a sign of positive reform in the Arab world”s most populous country.
Mubarak has yet to say whether he will seek a fifth sixth-year term in September, but is widely expected to do so because he has no obvious successor.
State television broadcast scenes of Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, casting their votes. Their son, Gamal, a senior NDP official, was also shown voting.
More than 30 million are entitled to vote but the turnout in previous referendums has been very low.
In a central Cairo polling station, only two or three people had showed up to vote in an hour-and-a-half. Some said more would vote later in the day after work.
Others said they saw no point in voting because their voice would make no difference. "I won”t vote and I”ll tell you why — because the National Democratic Party did this whole thing for their own benefit," said gas pump attendant Raafat Kheiri Aref.