Egyptian official signals big majority voted for new constitution this week

Ahead of official result, international election monitors criticise 'severe limits' on freedoms

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 10:19am
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 3:53am

An overwhelming majority of Egyptians who voted on the country's new constitution have backed the draft charter, a senior Egyptian official said yesterday.

An international monitoring group criticised a clampdown on Islamist groups ahead of the vote and said authorities had imposed "severe limits" on freedom of expression.

The election official said that unofficial results, after most of ballots have been counted, indicate that more than 90 per cent of the voters have said "yes" to the constitution. He declined to give an estimate of the final turnout.

Meanwhile, Nabil Salib, the head of the Supreme Election Committee, was quoted by the official news agency as saying ballots were still being counted and that final results would be announced in a few days. He initially said the results were expected today.

The vote this week is a milestone for Egypt's interim government, installed by the military after the ousting in July of Islamist president Mohammed Mursi, following mass protests demanding that he step down.

The draft is also a key piece of a political road map towards new elections for a president and a test of public opinion about the coup that removed Mursi. It is a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Mursi's Islamist allies and ratified in 2012 with some 64 per cent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 per cent.

Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups boycotted the referendum, calling it illegitimate. The country's second-largest Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, have largely stayed away from the polls, apparently in response to a crackdown against Islamists that included confiscation of their assets, a shutdown of their TV networks and the banning of their top clerics from preaching in mosques.

This left traditional Islamist strongholds across Egypt seeing only a trickle of voters during the two-day balloting.

By contrast, and raising the prospects of a continued polarisation among Egyptians, long lines formed outside polling stations in major urban areas and big cities, with crowds brandishing posters of the country's military chief, chanting in support of the army and women ululating.

Such patriotic outbursts followed an intense campaign by the government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media, which portrayed the balloting as key to the nation's security and stability.

The current interim government is looking for a big "yes" majority and large turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for the military chief, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, to run for president later this year. But silencing dissent has raised questions about the legitimacy of the process.

Kol Preap, the head of a Transparency International mission that monitored the referendum, said in a report that while authorities had responded to "a deep desire by the majority of Egyptians to move towards a democratic path", the political environment around the vote created "severe obstacles to advancing democracy".

Preap cited "severe limits on the freedom of expression, association, and assembly" in the campaign ahead of the vote. His group had eight observers in 15 out Egypt's 27 provinces.