SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Turnout is high as polling stations across Egypt today as voters there today decide whether or not to approve their country's new constitution. Supporters claim a yes vote will provide stability and a roadmap for Egypt's future. Opponents argue that the document allows Islamic scholars to whittle away at the country's secular legal system, and it leaves too much power in the hands of the president and the military. We go now to NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in our Cairo bureau. Soraya, thanks very much for being with us.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.
SIMON: And you've been talking to Egyptians all week. Do you have a feeling as we speak today as to whether this constitution will be approved?
NELSON: Well, as of a few days ago, the supporters and detractors of this constitution both felt this was going to pass and possibly with a sizeable majority. But more recently, it seems that there are some concern on the side of the Islamists that perhaps the opposition has gotten it's message out and that in fact the vote may be closer than they think. But at this stage, people still feel it will likely pass.
SIMON: I gather there's been some problems at polling stations.
NELSON: Yeah. It's been a little bit hectic. Part of it is because this was such a short notice at election. What they were telling voters was, you know, we can't say where the polling stations are going to be so send a text message or an SMS to this particular number and the government will respond where you should go cast votes. And they did that. But then this morning when they would show up at these polling stations, they were not on the list of voters. And so they're holding up their phones to the soldiers and police trying to get in and were not being allowed to get in. The other problem is that reporters are being kept out. This was certainly not the case with previous elections but they're not allowing us into polling stations - at least most polling stations that we've tried to get into. But the vote is going on, and it's amazing because we see voters, like housewife Adda Mitwali(ph), who showed up and insisted they were going to vote no matter what.
ADDA MITWALI: I'm thinking about my child, not about me. I am talking about the future. Most of people here, they are not coming for themselves. They're coming for the future of their children. So, we have to vote with a yes or no.
NELSON: But she, like many voters we talked to, were reluctant to say how they voted.
SIMON: As it turns out, Soraya, this is only the first of two days of the referendum. The second's a week from now. Why is the vote done this way?
NELSON: Well, because a lot of the judges here who are required to do supervising at polling stations have boycotted the polls. So, they feel that this is not a constitution that was brought about with any kind of national consensus and so they're staying away. And that forced the government to split into two days.
SIMON: Any international monitors at the polls looking for violations?
NELSON: They are absent today as well. A lot of the Western organizations that have been here previously said they just didn't feel there was enough lead time. They were concerned about being perceived as being biased one way or the other. And this is what Les Campbell, who is the Middle East and North Africa director for the National Democratic Institute had to say:
LES CAMPBELL: They shouldn't be trying to jam through a document which almost inevitably will be revisited within a few months anyway. This is just a power play. It's offending people. It's setting people off in the wrong direction. It's causing bitterness and they should pull back.
NELSON: But President Mohamed Morsi said that Egyptian law requires them to hold this referendum now.
SIMON: Any independent Egyptian observers on the scene?
NELSON: Political parties have said that they would be sending observers there. It's unclear how many of them are in the stations. But this is definitely not an election that has the sort of independent monitoring that we've seen in the past.
SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo. Thanks so much.
NELSON: You're welcome.