Egypt referendum strongly backs constitution changes

Pro-democracy activists who ousted President Mubarak said the changes did not go far enough

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Egyptians have strongly backed constitutional changes that will allow the country to move quickly on to elections.

Official results show that 77% of voters in Saturday's referendum backed the changes.

Under former President Hosni Mubarak, elections were stage-managed affairs with pre-determined results and turnout was very low.

A parliamentary vote may now take place as early as September.

Mohammed Ahmed Attiyah, the head of the supreme judicial committee who supervised the vote, said 18.5 million people voted in favour of the changes. Turnout was 41.2 % of the 45 million eligible voters.

The changes include:

• Reducing presidential terms from six years to four years and limiting the president to two terms

• Obliging the president to choose a deputy within 30 days of election

• Installing new criteria for presidential candidates, including a rule that they must be over 40 years old and not married to a non-Egyptian

Analysis

Cries of jubilation from Egyptian journalists caught us off-guard as we heard the referendum result announced at an otherwise unusually orderly news conference. One man told me that an honest turnout statistic alone was reason for celebration. "Just imagine the lies we were told in the past, if it was only 41% with those long queues," he commented.

In Tahrir Square, the focus of protests that overthrew the president, there was greater division. An angry group opposed to the constitutional changes revived their revolutionary slogan, "illegitimate". "We need a new constitution," they shouted. There was criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood, which called for a "yes" vote and is expected to benefit from it.

Others watching from the sidelines called for the demonstrations to stop. "We're just showing ourselves to be nervous and vengeful," said Ahmed Mustafa. "All of must accept this and begin to build our country."

The country's two main political groups, Mr Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, backed the proposals.

A spokesman for the Brotherhood, Essam al-Aryan, called the result a "victory for the Egyptian people", which would allow the country to "turn a page and enter a new phase".

He rejected claims that the Brotherhood had used its religious influence to persuade people to support the proposed changes, or that his organisation was the victor in the vote.

Pro-democracy activists said the changes did not go far enough and wanted the constitution to be entirely rewritten before elections could be held.

Activists have argued that the established parties stand to gain the most from holding an election quickly.

But an umbrella group for activists, the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, posted a message on Facebook urging people to accept the result of the referendum.

"We call on members of this Facebook page to respect the will and choice of the people after this democratic exercise which we regard as an historic departure in Egyptian political life," the message said.

The US ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey, said the referendum was "an important step towards realising the aspirations of the 25 January revolution".

For many Egyptians, Saturday was the first time they had ever voted.

Turnout was very low under Mr Mubarak, due to a lack of any real political competition and the assumption that polls were rigged.

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