Round one referendum results marred by reports of critical violations

Many took to the streets of Cairo and elsewhere Tuesday, after a call from the National Salvation Front and other political powers to protest voting irregularities committed during the first phase of the referendum on the draft constitution.

Many monitoring groups and opposition forces slammed the process for wide-scale violations, which they say are enough to delegitimize the whole process, and are as serious as poll violations that took place under the Mubarak regime. The allegations come in the midst of a growing polarization between Islamist forces campaigning for a “yes” vote on the draft, and their opponents who slam the constitution for its non-representative nature.

More than 9 million Egyptians cast their votes in the referendum’s first phase on Saturday. According to preliminary results, 56.5 percent of the voters cast ballots in favor of the constitution while 43.5 percent rejected it, with a voter turnout of approximately 31 percent.

Several groups have monitored the process. Opposition parties, political movements and NGOs say they detected violations that undermine the integrity of the vote. Among the most important operation rooms were those set up by the National Salvation Front and eight other parties and movements, as well as the Egyptian Alliance for Monitoring the Referendum, which is composed of 126 associations, rights and developmental organizations and, finally, the Judges Club. Each of these monitoring entities issued a report, listing the infractions detected.

The breaches reported by these different sources have been recurring. Monitoring reports spoke of several ballot papers that were not stamped, while supervising judges declined to register this violation.

Moreover, several journalists and NGO representatives were denied access to monitor the vote. Egypt Independent reporters were among those denied entry to several polling stations around the country. Reports added that some reporters and activists were assaulted, while members of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party and the Salafi Nour Party were allowed access.

Nasser Amin, head of the Center for the Independence of the Judicial Profession, said that the National Council for Human Rights, which issued monitoring permits, granted 30,000 blank observer cards as one stack to members of the FJP.

Moreover, in certain areas, the Brotherhood mobilized “yes” voters, and reportedly voted on behalf of some citizens using their ID cards. Voter lists were taken outside polling stations and some ballot papers were pre-marked, according to a National Salvation Front report.

Polling stations were also closed for lengthy periods during voting hours. For example, in Qraqera village in Minya al-Qamh, in the Delta governorate of Sharqiya, the main polling station was shut down for more than an hour. Voters told Egypt Independent that the supervising judges and executives were having lunch and then performing prayer.

“They shut down the station under the pretext of prayer,” said voter Tarek Farouq. The lengthy closure was confirmed by a “yes” voter in the village, Ayman Matouq.

Some polling stations received large numbers of voters, which considerably slowed down the movement of queues. In some cases, this led to voters refraining from casting their ballots or being turned away when polling stations closed their doors at night.

Ragya Omran, a member of Shayfenkom group, which monitors elections and took part in the National Salvation Front’s operation room, said voting at polling stations where a large “no” vote was expected was intentionally slowed down.

“The long lines discouraged people from voting. In addition, there were large crowds, suspected of belonging to the Brotherhood, occupying the polling stations and trying to keep the lines from moving,” she said.

Mohamed Sayed, who voted against the constitution, said he spent over an hour waiting to cast his vote, while many left the queue without voting due to the long lines. However, he doubted it was a deliberate move to block the voting process in the Sharqiya village, in which the majority voted against President Mohamed Morsy in the presidential election runoffs. Morsy's opponent, Ahmed Shafiq received 2,700 votes here while the president won 1,250.

Omran added that, in certain polling stations, where voters were projected to vote against the constitution, only one judge was designated to supervise the vote even though the district had up to 6,000 eligible voters. Farouq corroborated the account, explaining that in the last presidential election, voters in the district were distributed over four polling stations, but there was only one for the referendum.

Egypt Independent reporters touring polling stations in Cairo during the referendum Saturday found some of them closed, especially in the downtown area.

Meanwhile, monitoring reports documented cases where those supervising the polling were suspected of not being judges. Similarly, the Judges Club’s operation room said it received complaints that some of the polling station supervisors were not judges and called on the High Judicial Elections Committee (HJEC) to publish the names of judges to disperse accusations in this regard. The HJEC, meanwhile, had published on its website a list of judges who would take part in the referendum oversight before polling kicked off, although it is unclear whether the thousands listed did in fact supervise the voting.

The controversy follows a number of judicial authorities announcing their boycott of the poll in rejection of Morsy’s decrees and moves, which they deem as detrimental to the independence of the judiciary.

Toqadom al-Khateeb, in charge of political communication at the National Association for Change, also part of the National Salvation Front, gave the example of the head of a polling station in Sembellawein, in the Delta governorate of Daqahliya, who was a court secretary, not a judge. He added that other similar cases had been reported.

The allegation that some of the supervisors were not, in fact, judges could overturn the whole process, argued some experts. Sherif Azer, assistant secretary general at the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, a member of the Egyptian Alliance for Monitoring the Referendum, said that if that claim is proved, it would be sufficient to invalidate the entire referendum.

“The current political situation and the fact that many judges boycotted the polling raises the question of whether the HJEC had to resort to employees in the Ministry of Justice to fill the gap,” Azer said, adding that the fact that the government insisted on holding the poll despite the judges’ boycott was enough to cast doubt over the extent to which it was a clean process.

Amin likened the lack of judicial oversight to former President Hosni Mubarak’s 2010 parliamentary elections, during which the lack of supervising judges was key to a number of violations securing the formerly ruling National Democratic Party’s victory of 90 percent.

Ashraf Zahran, a member of the Justice Ministry’s operation room, criticized the statements issued by the Judges Club and told state-run newspaper Al-Ahram that all the heads of polling stations were judges. The HJEC also condemned claims to the contrary, but said it would still investigate complaints in that regard.

Lawyer and former presidential candidate Khaled Ali raised a case at the Administrative Court calling for a halt on the second phase of the referendum and a repeat of the whole process, with ballots including the draft constitution in its entirety.

One structural violation pertains to the opacity around the draft constitution. A statement issued by the National Salvation Front said the final draft of the constitution was not published in the official Egyptian Gazette, meaning that many voters were probably unaware of the text of the articles.

The Constituent Assembly, which drafted the constitution, organized a press conference one day before the vote in which it said there were several incorrect copies of the final draft circulating among the public. The concern was also raised by the Freedom and Justice newspaper, the mouthpiece of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm. As a result, the paper published thousands of copies of the constitution and distributed it alongside the daily newspaper.

Meanwhile, some observers raised concerns about the politicization of the documentation and reporting process on the violations.

“It will be difficult to ascertain the precise depth of the violations: the government’s estimations will be regarded as compromised by the opposition, and the opposition’s will be regarded as exaggerations by the government,” said H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institute. “As decentralized as the ‘no’ vote campaign was, it did not coordinate complaints to the state, meaning that no one can independently verify even the number of complaints,” he added.

“Regardless of that, however, two things are very clear. The first is that this constitution does not enjoy the support of more than a minority of the entire country — it is not a consensus document for the nation. Secondly, neither of the ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote campaigns were able to encourage a majority of voters to even vote. The vast majority of Egyptian voters did not vote 'yes' or 'no.' That’s a sign to the leadership, or lack thereof, of the political arena, for both the Brotherhood and the opposition,” Hellyer added.

This piece appears in Egypt Independent's weekly print edition.

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