Egyptians vote on divisive new constitution as tourism slumps

Amnah Sayyed Moussa (85) casts her vote for the second round of a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi in Giza, Egypt. (Amr Nabil, AP)

Amnah Sayyed Moussa (85) casts her vote for the second round of a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi in Giza, Egypt. (Amr Nabil, AP)

Egyptians voted on Saturday in the final round of a referendum on a new constitution championed by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies, but with little prospect of the result quelling fierce protests.

On the eve of polling, clashes in Egypt's second city Alexandria injured 62 people as stone-throwing mobs torched vehicles, underlining the turmoil gripping the Arab world's most populous nation.

On December 5, eight people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between rival demonstrators outside the presidential palace in Cairo.

Some 250 000 police and soldiers were deployed to provide security during the referendum. The army has also positioned tanks around the presidential palace since early this month.

The proposed charter was expected to be adopted after already garnering 57% support in the first round of the referendum a week ago.

But the slim margin and a low first-round turnout have emboldened the opposition, which looks likely to continue its campaign against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers.

Long queues were reported at many polling stations on Saturday.

Electoral officials announced they were extending voting by four hours, to 11:00 pm (2100 GMT), as they did in the first round.

At one polling station in Giza, southwest Cairo, 50-year-old housewife Zarifa Abdul Aziz said: "I will vote 'no' a thousand times ... I am not comfortable with the Brotherhood and all that it is doing."

Rana Jaber (24) said she was voting against a draft constitution she believed would "undermine the rights of workers and children."

However 19-year-old law student Ahmed Mohammed said he voted 'yes' because "I am convinced it contains the best of the 1971 constitution," the document that the new charter will replace.

Mohamed Mamza, a 49-year-old driver, said: "I am voting 'yes' because Egypt needs a constitution to be stable."

Marred by fraud

The text was drafted by a panel dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-orthodox Salafist groups.
Christians and liberals boycotted the process in protest at changes they saw as weakening human rights, especially those of women.

Morsi had to split voting over two successive Saturdays after more than half of Egypt's judges said they would not provide the statutory supervision of polling stations.

The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, launched a last-ditch campaign to vote down the charter after deciding that a boycott would be counter-productive.

But it and Egyptian human rights groups alleged the first round was marred by fraud, setting up a possible later challenge to the results. They called news conferences for Sunday to give their observations of the second round of polling.

Preliminary tallies from the final round were expected early Sunday. Full official results will be released "two days after the end of polling," the electoral commission said, according to the official MENA news agency.

If, as expected, the new constitution is adopted, Morsi will have to call parliamentary elections within two months, to replace the Islamist-dominated assembly ordered dissolved by Egypt's top court in June.

No tourism

workers at Cairo's pyramids located near some polling stations lamented the turmoil that has caused tourists to flee.

"Currently there is no tourism in Egypt," grumbled Adel Anwar, the 32-year-old owner of a trinket stall.

"The new Islamist government has no experience in managing the state," he said. "The Islamists care only about their interests, not us. They forget about everyone else."

The complaint is a common one among those dependent on Egypt's tourist industry, a key earner for the economy.

From Red Sea resorts, to Nile cruises, to the Giza pyramids – one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the industry is struggling.

Before the early 2011 revolution that ended the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, tourism accounted for $12.5-billion of Egypt's $510-billion economy.

Last year, that income slumped 30% to $8.8-billion as fewer tourists came, those that did spent less, and Egypt's currency declined in value.

President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood campaigned on a platform of bringing back stability, and stressed that – despite the fears of their detractors – they had no plans to impose Islamist rules banning alcohol or bikinis.

But the promised stability has not been forthcoming. Instead Egypt has been jostled for a month now by protests for and against Morsi, and for and against the constitution he calls key to the country's future.

"We need stability to get tourists back. But the Islamist rule is provoking more instability and rage," said Sayed Abdel Tawab, a 33-year-old tour guide who has seen his daily earnings shrink from $32 per day to $11.

"I have no hope there will be stability," said Yasser Bahlol (33) in his own souvenir stand as he idly surveyed what would previously have been a bustling, high-season flow of visitors. Only a few Egyptian visitors wandered past, spending little.

"The constitution doesn't mention tourism at all even though tourism is a major pillar of the economy," he said. He added he was now looking to start a business outside the tourism sector to earn money.

Only one person there, Ahmed El-Leby (52) was found supporting the constitution and Morsi's government.

"I'll vote yes for stability," he said. "The opposition isn't patriotic."

That assessment was not shared by Demrdash Ghoneim as he waited in vain for tourists to ride one of his 10 horses. "Extremist Islamists are keeping tourists away from Egypt," he said.

The referendum result will solve nothing, Ghoneim predicted. "The Muslim Brotherhood divided the country with the constitution." – AFP.

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