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Egypt votes in major test of democracy

Egyptians lined up at a polling station in Mansoura yesterday as voters got their first taste of democracy in a referendum on a package of constitutional changes. Egyptians lined up at a polling station in Mansoura yesterday as voters got their first taste of democracy in a referendum on a package of constitutional changes. (AFP/ Getty Images)
By Maggie Michael
Associated Press / March 20, 2011

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CAIRO — Eager for their first taste of a free vote in decades, Egyptians lined up by the hundreds yesterday to vote on constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling military that critics fear could propel the country’s largest Islamist group to become Egypt’s most dominant political force.

The nationwide referendum is the first major test of the country’s transition to democracy after a popular uprising forced longtime leader Hosni Mubarak to step down five weeks ago, handing the reins of power to the military.

Underscoring the tensions beneath the euphoria, however, a crowd of angry men pelted reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and a group of his supporters with rocks, bottles, and cans outside a polling center in Cairo’s Mokattam district. ElBaradei, the former head of the UN nuclear watchdog agency, wasn’t injured but was forced to flee in a sport utility vehicle without casting his ballot. The crowd also smashed the car windows and shouted, “You traitor. We don’t want you.’’

The Nobel laureate later tweeted that “organized thugs’’ were to blame for the attack. In a second Twitter posting, he said figures from the Mubarak regime were seeking to undermine the revolution, a reference to the uprising that ousted the former leader.

The turnout was unusually large, with lines forming before polls opened. More than half of Egypt’s 80 million people are eligible voters. The vote promises to be the freest in Egypt since the 1952 ouster of the monarchy. Egypt has since been ruled by men of military background, with fraud and low turnout defining every nationwide vote.

“This is a historic day for Egypt,’’ Deputy Prime Minister Yahya al-Gamal said after casting his vote.

Voters were asked to choose yes or no for the whole package of nine changes, which would open elections to independent candidates, impose presidential term limits, and curtail 30-year-old emergency laws that give police near-unlimited powers. Preliminary results will be announced today.

A yes vote would allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year or early in the next, a timeframe that critics say is too soon for the dozens of political groups born out of the 18-day anti-Mubarak uprising to organize themselves and be able to effectively compete.

Instead, they say, the timetable would benefit Mubarak’s one-time ruling National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood — archrivals and the two most powerful and best-organized political groups in Egypt.

The NDP is blamed for the rampant corruption and the fraud that marred every election in Egypt during Mubarak’s 29-year rule. The Brotherhood, which has strongly campaigned for the adoption of the changes, advocates the installment of an Islamic government in Egypt. The ambivalence of its positions on the role of women and minority Christians worry large segments of society.

Leading the no campaign are two presidential hopefuls — ElBaradei and the Arab league Secretary-General Amr Moussa, who also is a former foreign minister in Egypt.

Egypt’s Christians also were overwhelmingly against the amendments. They fear their quest for equal rights would suffer a serious setback if the Brotherhood gains influence in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Syria
Syrian police sealed off a southern city yesterday, a day after security forces killed at least five protesters there in the first sign that the Arab world’s pro-democracy push is seeping into one of the region’s most repressive places.

Residents of Daraa were being allowed to leave but could not enter the city, said prominent Syrian rights activist Mazen Darwish. The quick cordon seemed aimed at choking off any spread of unrest after Friday’s clashes and funeral processions yesterday.

President Bashar Assad, who has boasted that his country is immune to the cries for change that have toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, sent a delegation to the southern city to offer his condolences to families of the victims, according to a Syrian official.

Security forces launched a harsh crackdown on Friday’s demonstrations calling for political freedoms. Protests took place in at least five cities, including the capital, Damascus. But only in Daraa did they turn deadly.

Yemen
A crackdown that killed dozens failed to stop massive demonstrations against Yemen’s US-backed president, as crowds of thousands clashed yesterday with security forces smashing their protest camps and even seized control of one southern city.

In the capital, the government had to bring out tank units and other military forces to protect key buildings as crowds swelled. Protesters also stood their ground in the southern port of Mukalla, surging out of their destroyed encampment and encircling a police station.

More than a month of daily protests calling for political freedoms and an end to corruption have presented President Ali Abdullah Saleh with the most dire challenge to his 32 years of running Yemen. In the bloodiest day of the uprising, Yemeni forces killed at least 46 people and injured hundreds in the capital on Friday, including with snipers firing on demonstrators from rooftops.

Bahrain
A convoy of Kuwaiti doctors and medical equipment was en route yesterday to Bahrain as Gulf neighbors pour more troops and aid into the violence-torn island kingdom that has become an arena for regional tensions. Protesters in Iraq jeered Saudi Arabia’s king as a slave of America and Israel for sending troops into Bahrain.

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