"No" vote in Egypt referendum is a luxury for some

CAIRO Sat Dec 15, 2012 9:28am EST

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Tucked away in a Cairo bazaar that in better times drew hordes of tourists, shopkeeper Ahmed Sayed said voting "no" in a referendum on Egypt's future is a luxury he cannot afford.

His shop full of model pyramids, statuettes of the Sphinx and "hubbly bubbly" water pipes, Sayed is backing a constitution with an Islamist flavor that opponents say will deepen divisions in a country battered by two years of turmoil.

"We need stability," Sayed, 35, said, grumbling that he was only seeing a quarter the number of customers compared before the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and scared away foreign visitors.

"If we vote 'no', we will be back at square one. The tourists will never come as long as there is no stability. We shopowners are the ones harmed," he said in the Khan al-Khalily market, next to mosques that date back hundreds of years.

President Mohamed Mursi, who touched off deadly protests last month by awarding himself extra powers, and his Islamists allies are banking on their disciplined supporters and Egyptians exhausted by the upheaval to push through a constitution that if approved will lead to a parliamentary election in early 2013.

Their liberal-minded opponents say the document is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. A win for the "no" vote could mean another nine months before a new constitution is in place and may mean a year's wait for a parliamentary poll.

Egyptians queued to vote on Saturday on the constitution, with soldiers joining police to secure the referendum after deadly protests during the run-up. Official results are due after a second round of voting on December 22.

In a rundown neighborhood of Cairo, a woman with a big bag of potatoes balanced on her head said: "Those who vote 'no' are well-off. They are comfortable and living well but we here are the ones suffering."

Critics insist that the new constitution, far from ending the turbulence, will compound it by alienating many Egyptians, including Christians who make up 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million people.

WAY FORWARD?

But for many across the Arab world's most populous nation, a vote for the constitution is simply a way to move beyond the latest crisis regardless of reservations.

"I voted 'yes' for stability," said Ahmed Abou Rabu, 39, a shopkeeper in Alexandria, Egypt's second biggest city.

"I cannot say all the articles of the constitution are perfect but I am voting for a way forward. I don't want Egyptians to go in circles, forever lost in this transition."

In Rafah, on Egypt's border with Gaza, Moussa Abu Ayad echoed that view: "Those who want chaos don't want the constitution. We want to say 'yes' for stability."

The opposition coalition of leftists, Christians and liberal-minded Muslims say failure to get it right now promises more bloodshed. Eight people were killed in clashes between rival factions last week outside the presidential palace.

But some Egyptians said shortcomings could be fixed later and supporting the draft would at least start to restore order.

"The constitution won't lead to calm immediately but it will help the country restore calm over time," said Ahmed Fouad, 65-year-old pensioner in the more affluent Cairo suburb of Maadi. "The people are tired."

Others were less optimistic, regardless of the outcome, resigned to more protests and more upheaval for an economy that has long relied heavily on tourism.

"The country is divided," said Hady Adel, 23, a 'no' voter working in another shop full of trinkets in Cairo's bazaar. "If the result is 'yes' the opposition will protest and if the result is 'no' Islamists won't stay quiet."

(Additional reporting by Marwa Awad in Alexandria and Mohamed Yusri in Ismailia; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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