Egyptians Begin Voting On New Draft Charter

Egyptians go to the polls over the next two days to vote on a draft constitution. The military-backed government is pushing for a "yes" vote amid indications that military chief General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will soon announce his intention to run for the presidency.

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And I'm Renee Montagne.

In the next few minutes we're going to take a look at two countries, Egypt and Tunisia, both facing turning points in revolutions set off by the Arab Spring. We start in Cairo, where Egyptians begin voting today on a new constitution. That country is deeply and violently divided between supporters of the military-led government and the Islamists who back ousted President Mohammed Morsi.

NPR's Leila Fadel has been talking to voters and joins us now from a polling station. Welcome.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: So tell us generally what you're seeing and hearing there in Cairo.

FADEL: Well, right now I'm standing at the end of a very long line at one polling station in central Cairo. People are out voting, saying that a yes for this constitution is a yes for the future of this country. There are a lot of Egyptians that aren't voting today, who have decided to boycott, supporters of the Islamist ousted President Mohamed Morsi and others who say right now human rights are not being respected and the path to democracy is in danger.

MONTAGNE: And when you say people are saying you must vote yes for a constitution, that constitution is the constitution of this military-led government. And in recent months we've seen the government crackdown on dissidents, jail hundreds of Islamists and even journalists. So Leila, in that atmosphere, can there be any opposition campaign really to this constitution?

FADEL: I think that's really the question. There was one party here in Egypt called the Egyptian Strong Party, who was mobilizing a no campaign, asking people to vote no to the constitution. And yet they kept getting arrested for campaigning that way. And so now they also are not participating today. The only posters that we've seen on the roads, the only advertisements are telling people to vote yes. And even a minister we happened upon at one of polling stations this morning, said: If you're really an Egyptian, then you'll vote yes to the constitution.

MONTAGNE: That is to say a minister of the state, right?

FADEL: Right, so the question here that critics are pointing out is: Is it really a choice if critics are being silenced and arrested?

MONTAGNE: Well, what is the difference between this draft constitution that's being voted on and the one that the Morsi government brought to Egypt? Is there a big difference?

FADEL: Well, I mean there aren't huge differences but there are important differences. And a lot of rights groups say this constitution is better when it comes to women's rights, when it comes to children's rights, when it comes to minority rights. It also lessens the role of religion. The role of religion is still very important but doesn't make it conditional on things like women's rights and other things.

But it also further enshrines the military's role in Egypt's political life. The Minister of Defense will be chosen by the military for the eight years to come; military justice upheld for civilians, so there are concerns about that.

MONTAGNE: And, Leila, is this vote today also a referendum on the coup that the military carried out last year? And on the general who is functionally running the country right now?

FADEL: Yeah, that's right. Speaking to a lot of analysts and also voters today, when they say they're going to vote yes, they say they're voting for, in support of the military - the military-backed government. Many saying they hope that this will lead to General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, the head of the military, to run for president. A lot of Egyptians saying he's the only man that can unify and stabilize the country at a time like this.

Many Egyptians saying a vote yes is a vote for - to endorse what's happened over the last six months. Which is a concerning idea for a lot of rights groups who are concerned about human rights violations that have been going on.

MONTAGNE: Leila, thanks very much.

FADEL: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: That's NPR's Leila Fadel speaking to us from Cairo, where Egyptians are voting today and tomorrow on a new constitution.

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