Egypt tests transition to democracy

  • Updated: March 19, 2011 - 10:16 PM

Thousands lined up early to vote on constitutional changes proposed by the ruling military.

CAIRO - "Now my voice can be heard."

Majdi Alam Mohammed, a 50-year-old dressmaker, summed up his satisfaction on Saturday at voting on proposed amendments to the Egyptian constitution. It was the first time, he said, that he was casting a ballot in a genuine referendum likely to have an effect on the way the country is governed.

Large numbers of Egyptians streamed into polling places, taking the first step toward moving their revolution from Tahrir Square into the halls of government. Voters standing in long lines, some waiting uncomplainingly for up to three hours, applauded the promise of an end to the rigged parliamentary and presidential elections under toppled President Hosni Mubarak, which they derided as frauds that produced precooked results.

"Before, we could all just sit at home," said Khalid Hassan, a 46-year-old window repairman voting in Cairo's humble Abassiyah neighborhood. "We knew they would just say what they wanted about the results, and our vote had no meaning. I could say no, they would say yes. I could say yes, they would say no."

The turnout, described as unprecedented by State Information Service Director Ismail Khairat, was estimated by the government's High Judicial Commission at 60 percent.

Whatever the verdict on the proposed amendments, the vote propelled Egypt to the front of the line in a reform movement that has swept across the Middle East the past three months.

As many as 45 million Egyptians, about half the population, are eligible to vote under relaxed qualifications. Anyone older than 18 with a national identity card could cast a ballot at any polling station.

A monitoring group, the Egyptian Association for Supporting Democratic Development, noted scattered violations of polling rules. But there were no reports of the gross vote-rigging that was commonplace under Mubarak.

The referendum asked voters to approve or disapprove several changes that would limit the president to two four-year terms, curb executive powers, make it easier to form political parties and allow the legislature and voters to more easily end the emergency powers that have been in effect for 30 years since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat.

Results were expected to be announced by Sunday evening.

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