I bet the opposition, led by former IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei, are kicking themselves about now. They came out earlier last week asking their supporters to boycott the referendum on Egypt’s new constitution.
The first round of voting showed the anti-Islamists winning 44% of the vote. That figure is unofficial, but it comes from the Muslim Brotherhood. Many observers predicted an overwhelming “Yes” vote for the constitution and the fact that only 56% of voters approved it reveals a far more divided Egypt than first thought.
But the narrow win so far gives Islamist President Mohamed Mursi only limited grounds for celebration by showing the wide rifts in a country where he needs to build a consensus for tough economic reforms.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s party, which propelled Mursi to office in a June election, said 56.5 percent backed the text. Official results are not expected until after the next round.
While an opposition official conceded the “yes” camp appeared to have won the first round, the opposition National Salvation Front said in a statement that voting abuses meant a rerun was needed – although it did not explicitly challenge the Brotherhood’s vote tally.
Rights groups reported abuses such as polling stations opening late, officials telling people how to vote and bribery. They also criticized widespread religious campaigning which portrayed “no” voters as heretics.
A joint statement by seven human rights groups urged the referendum’s organizers “to avoid these mistakes in the second stage of the referendum and to restage the first phase again”.
Mursi and his backers say the constitution is vital to move Egypt’s democratic transition forward. Opponents say the basic law is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights, including those of Christians who make up 10 percent of the population.
The build-up to Saturday’s vote was marred by deadly protests. Demonstrations erupted when Mursi awarded himself extra powers on November 22 and then fast-tracked the constitution through an assembly dominated by his Islamist allies.
However, the vote passed off calmly with long queues in Cairo and several other places, though unofficial tallies indicated turnout was around a third of the 26 million people eligible to vote this time. The vote was staggered because many judges needed to oversee polling staged a boycott in protest.
The opposition had said the vote should not have been held given the violent protests. Foreign governments are watching closely how the Islamists, long viewed warily in the West, handle themselves in power.
“It’s wrong to have a vote or referendum with the country in the state it is – blood and killings, and no security,” said Emad Sobhy, a voter who lives in Cairo. “Holding a referendum with the country as it is cannot give you a proper result.”
This first round of voting was held mostly in urban areas. The vote next week will take in most of the countryside where there is far less literacy and more devout citizens. The vote next Saturday should go better for Morsi, but given the results this week, he has already suffered a setback.