Voters Pass Historic Changes To Egypt's Constitution

Voters in Egypt overwhelming approved changes to the constitution. The landmark referendum was held over the weekend, and the vote prepares the way for new elections. But not everyone is happy, leaders of Egypt's revolution wanted the people to vote against the changes.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Voters in Egypt overwhelmingly approved changes to their constitution in a referendum over the weekend. That prepares the way for new elections, but not everybody's happy. Leaders of Egypt's revolution wanted people to vote against the constitutional changes, because they favored bigger changes. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is covering the story from Cairo.

Hi, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: Before we get to the results let's talk about the methods. Was this a free and fair election?

NELSON: Well, certainly the voters and the independent monitors felt so - the ones that we spoke to. And that makes this the first transparent election in most of Egyptian voters' lifetime.

The turnout was twice that of previous elections, at least according to some of the estimates we've seen. And a lot of the polling stations - when you were there you'd see voters who say they'd never cast a ballot before.

But some voters were complaining that they had received ballots without the requisite official stamp. Although, judges who were supervising the precinct signed the ballots and made sure that they were counted. But in the end, some opponents of the amendments feel that the events leading up the referendum unfairly tipped the scales against them.

INSKEEP: You said the opponents of the amendments. So we're talking here about people who were leaders of the revolution who wanted these constitutional changes to go down to defeat. What do they think happened that tilted the scales?

NELSON: Well, for one thing the government never published the amendments. I mean, the public never had time to look at it until election day. And there were also a lot of other details that were murky.

For example, could they vote for some of the amendments and against others? Because the wholesale package is what the revolution leaders opposed and also some of the presidential candidates.

The other thing that was being reported is that there were campaign posters and banners put up near the polling stations on election day that said it was un-Islamic to not vote for the measures. So it's unclear who put up those posters, but these factors all weighed against the people who wanted to see the amendments go down.

INSKEEP: Well, if this is kind of a defeat for many of the more what we would think of liberal democratic forces inside Egypt, who won exactly? Who was supporting the constitutional changes?

NELSON: Well, the former allies of Mr. Mubarak, the ousted president, and also the Muslim Brotherhood and other established political movements that already have a base and that already have a platform in place.

INSKEEP: Oh, because this was a very quick election. It's just been weeks since the revolution. So people who already had electoral machinery - already had campaign machinery in place were able to take advantage?

NELSON: Absolutely. And that's the big fear that many of the revolution's leaders have for the upcoming elections as well, for presidential and parliamentary elections.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that. What happens now that these amendments have passed?

NELSON: For one thing, you'll see restrictions on civil liberties and political rights eased. As well as term limits being put in place for the president. And limits on the ability for that president to impose a state of emergency, which of course Mubarak had used to suppress all of his opposition for three decades.

The military rulers here in Egypt are also expected to issue a constitutional declaration on the next steps, including a time table for parliamentary and presidential elections, which they really want to happen in the coming months.

INSKEEP: You're saying here that Hosni Mubarak's former party basically triumphed, got out the vote for their side here, as did the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak's party has got campaign headquarters, party headquarters, all across the country that are vacant or even burned out. Are you saying that in the end his party might still do strongly in these elections based on the way they did strongly in the referendum?

NELSON: Well, they will likely redefine themselves. You know, sort of revamp the party. It's not going to - it's very unlikely to go forward as the National Democratic Party. But the feeling is that these people are all sort of waiting in the wings.

And, in fact, many of them are still in government in some way, shape or form. And so the feeling is that they could quickly redefine themselves and get out the vote.

INSKEEP: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is in Cairo.

Soraya, thanks as always.

NELSON: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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