FAHMEEN, Egypt (Reuters) - The thugs stayed home, the judges resumed their seats with confidence and the police officers waved observers through into the polling stations with a smile and a polite “Welcome.”
Voters in a constitutional referendum in Egypt on Saturday could hardly believe it. Men in their 50s said they were voting for the first time in their lives, because in past elections they saw no point even trying to cast a ballot.
At parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010 abuses were widespread.
Then, witnesses saw riot police denying voters access to polling stations, clerks stuffing boxes with unused ballots, and armed thugs hired by candidates from the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) intimidating anyone who might vote for a rival.
In 2010 even judges were absent, written out of the procedures in constitutional amendments which ignored opposition and civil society objections. The result was a parliament in which deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s party held all but a handful of seats.
But now Mubarak is out of power, the old parliament has been dissolved and the NDP hardly exists as a political force. The popular uprising that broke out on January 25 has transformed the political landscape.
“There’s a massive difference. In the past the thugs would let in only those they wanted,” said Mustafa Abdel Kader, a lawyer who voted on Saturday morning in Helwan, south of Cairo.
“It was totally rigged.”
Despite voting being overwhelmingly calm, a crowd blocked Mohamed ElBaradei from entering a Cairo polling station, shoving him and smashing his car window with rocks as he left. The retired United Nations diplomat turned activist who led an opposition movement plans to run for president.
POLICE WATCH, DON‘T INTERFERE
In the village of Fahmeen, about 30 km (20 miles) south of Cairo, policemen lounged around the gateway to a primary school as villagers went in to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the amendments.
The changes would open up presidential elections to more candidates, limit the president to two four-year terms, restore judicial supervision of elections and require the next parliament to make a complete overhaul of the old constitution.
In some areas in the past the police played a role in the manifold rigging arrangements, turning a blind eye to the presence of armed thugs and driving away independent monitors and the agents of unapproved candidates.
But at five polling stations visited on Saturday the police kept their distance and let everyone approach the polling station officers without interference.
Voters presented their national identity cards to a clerk, who registered their names and numbers and gave them a voting paper. Once they had made their choice they dropped their papers into a glass-fronted ballot box.
To reassure voters, this time the clerks will count the votes in situ at the end of the day in the presence of the judicial official assigned to that station.
In the past the ballot boxes went to counting centers controlled by the police and the local authorities. In 2005 disgruntled judges reported that in some cases the officials invented the numbers.
“I‘m voting for the first time ever because I know there will be a fair result. We feel that our voice will be heard,” said Ahmed Essawi, 52, a manager at a cement factory. “This time there will be value added.”
“IT WAS ALWAYS FAKE”
“In the past it was always fake. People would threaten you before you even went in. So voting was a risking business and it had no meaning anyway,” he added.
Mohamed Mustafa, a 40-year-old company worker in Cairo’s Maadi suburb, agreed. “I never voted before. The elections were not proper. But definitely this time it looks good,” he said.
The military council that has run Egypt since February 11 has not campaigned one way or another on the constitutional amendments, drafted by a military appointed committee.
But the debate has been lively, roughly divided between Islamists and conservatives who favor the amendments on one side and, on the other side, liberals and secularists who say the old constitution no longer has any legitimacy and should be replaced before any elections take place.
The Muslim Brotherhood, probably the largest single political movement in the country, has argued for a ‘yes’ vote.
Its opponents say the new political forces that led the uprising need more time to organize, or else the Brotherhood and the remnants of the old ruling party will dominate the next parliament and draft a new constitution to suit their interests.
Although the military council has suspended Mubarak’s constitution, a ‘yes’ vote in the referendum will temporarily reactivate it with only modest changes. The vast powers of the presidency, for example, will stay in place.
“I‘m going to vote ‘no’ because we have to start from scratch. The constitution must come from the revolution and the new generation is not ready to take part in elections,” said Essawi.
But Murad Abdel Nabi, a voter in the village of Ikhsas south of Cairo, disagreed. “I‘m voting ‘yes’ so that the revolution will be stable, for the safety of the country,” he said.