For the moment, Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsy has reasons to smile as there has been a high turnout in the highly contested constitutional referendum, widely seen as a litmus test for the President’s legitimacy.
After a bitter contest between pro-Islamist and secular groups for political space, reinforced by energetic and often violent street battles over the past three weeks, Mr. Morsy finally managed to hold the referendum on Saturday.
The secularist opposition, which seemed initially inclined to boycott, decided to participate and reject the constitutional draft, which in its view did not guarantee equal gender and minority rights, and fell short of assuring freedom of expression.
Just ahead of the poll, the National Salvation Front (NSF), the anti-Morsy constellation shifted its campaign from the streets to the media. On Friday, it ran half-page advertisements in newspapers, which rubbished the document, drawn by a 100 member assembly dominated by Islamists, as “a constitution that divides Egypt”.
A tweet from Hamdeen Sabbahi, a former presidential candidate and now a leading NSF luminary, reinforced the sense of urgency in the secularist camp to reject the constitutional draft. “To every Egyptian, man and woman, listen to the voice of reason and conscience and say No [to the constitution draft] to save Egypt and support of the nation... Adoption of divisive draft constitution that violates universal values & freedoms is a sure way to institutionalize instability & turmoil,” said Mr. Sabbahi on Twitter.
The religious leadership of Coptic Christians—one of the largest minorities in Egypt with a 10 per cent presence in the country---also endorsed participation in the referendum. Coptic Pope Tawadros II not only cast his ballot but urged all Egyptians to participate in the elections, regardless of their position on the constitutional draft.
He pointed out that individuals could ballot according to their convictions but it was necessary to vote. The Copts have been one of most vocal opponents of the draft national charter, and have actively participated in street demonstrations against Mr. Morsy.
Women also seemed to come out strongly to vote, and their robust participation in Cairo was recorded by Egypt Independent, a local newspaper. Local media is also reporting high turnout in the Sinai peninsula especially in the city of Al Arish.
In a country which is broadly split between Islamists and secularists—as demonstrated by the June presidential elections that Mr. Morsy , the Islamist candidate, won with a tiny margin—a high turnout did not necessarily mean that the constitutional draft would be approved. While no scientific exit poll has been conducted, Egyptian media is reporting that significant number of voters who had queued up seemed inclined to reject the draft.
As voting progressed, there was considerable anxiety in the secularist camp about the fairness of the poll. Al Ahram Online, said that the April 6 Youth Movement—a prominent component of it the NSF—had released a report documenting a series of offences including unstamped voting papers, absence of voting ink and judges to supervise the stations.
The referendum has been staggered in two phases, with the next round due on December 22. Analysts point out that the two stage polling became necessary because many judges, required to supervise, were on strike to protest against a decree issued by Mr. Morsy that initially gave him sweeping powers.