Egypt Goes to Polls in Historic Step Toward Democracy

Egyptians vote in referendum on nine constitutional amendments.

More than 50 million Egyptians went to the polls yesterday in a referendum on nine constitutional amendments - the first step on the long transition to democracy following the popular uprising that ousted President Hosni Mubarak last month. The results will be published today.

"For the first time we feel that our vote counts," an Egyptian said, about to drop his ballot into a polling box in the southern town of Minia.

Women lining up to cast their votes during a referendum on constitutional amendments in Cairo yesterday.Reuters

Meanwhile, a student shouted into a television broadcaster's microphone, "For the first time we don't know the results of our vote."

The unprecedented number of voters in itself is an indication of democracy. The meager participation in referendums over the past three decades reflected the public's total lack of confidence in the government.

But the participation rate does not guarantee that the amendments will be pushed through. The results will determine whether the amended constitution will be the basis for parliamentary and presidential elections or whether a new constitution will be drafted. The second possibility may push back the election date.

The nine amendments (out of the constitution's 210 clauses ) include limiting the president's term to four years and two consecutive terms, canceling several restrictions imposed on presidential candidates, appointing a vice president, and requiring parliamentary approval and a referendum on extending an emergency regime beyond six months.

Also, judges would supervise elections. The amendments also stipulate that the constitutional court would be able to debate the validity of MPs' terms.

But the amendments raise questions; for example, it's not clear on the basis of which election law parliament members will be elected. The Supreme Military Council promised that a new election law would ensure greater representation, but this has not yet been enacted. So if parliamentary elections are held in three months a victory by the current ruling party would be a certainty .

One proposed change stipulates that a presidential candidate or candidate's spouse may not have dual citizenship and the candidate may not be younger than 40.

These restrictions appear to be intended to thwart the election of Nobel Prize laureate Ahmed Zewail, who has dual citizenship, and Mohamed ElBaradei, whose wife apparently has dual citizenship. If these rules go through, it would ensure that the candidates of the previous rulers or the army would win the elections.

Perhaps the greatest absurdity in the amendments was pointed out by a sociologist and human rights activist, Prof. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. He writes in the newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm that one of the uprising's leaders, Wael Ghonim, will not be able to contend for the presidency because he is married to a foreign national.

"The tragedy is that Wael is younger than the constitution drafting committee head Tariq al-Bishri by 50 years .... Now the old generation is trying to deny the grandchildren's generation the fruit of their revolution," Ibrahim writes.