- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2007

1:46 p.m.

CAIRO (AP) — Many polling stations stood virtually deserted today as Egypt held a referendum on constitutional amendments that opponents have condemned as a sham and a setback to democratic progress.

Opposition parties called for a boycott of the referendum, but turnout also was hurt by widespread apathy and confusion over the changes, which were pushed to a public vote only a week after they were approved by parliament.

“I don’t know what I’m voting for,” said Hassan Abdel Salaam, a house painter casting his ballot at a Cairo polling station. “If I didn’t vote, maybe I would get into trouble. I have five children, and we live in one room.”

At several stations, the government bused in public employees to cast ballots, and state media ran messages urging voters to turn out. In one Cairo district, a truck plastered with posters of President Hosni Mubarak blared messages through a loudspeaker calling on residents to vote “for the sake of your children and your future.”

Mr. Mubarak’s government has touted the changes as part of a campaign of democratic reform. However, opponents say the amendments will only cement his party’s control. They point to provisions they say will weaken the monitoring of elections and enable vote-rigging. One amendment will allow the suspension of civil-rights-like requirements for arrests and search warrants in terrorism investigations.

In a televised address yesterday, Mr. Mubarak urged Egyptians to vote, saying the amendments “give a new push to political party activity” and would “stop the exploitation of religion and illegal political behavior, and protect the homeland from the danger of terrorism.”

His son, Gamal, a top leader of the ruling National Democratic Party, also called for a large turnout, saying yesterday that the 34 amendments were a “very important step in our march toward further reform on the political side.”

A tour of polling centers in Cairo showed turnout to be very low. In one district of 1,000 registered voters in Cairo’s Heliopolis neighborhood, poll workers said just 40 ballots had been cast by early afternoon. The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights estimated that just 2 percent to 3 percent of the electorate had voted by 2 p.m.

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights reported rigging in hundreds of polling stations. In the Nile Delta province of Damietta, for instance, civil servants were seen stuffing ballot boxes in a station where the attendance register showed only one person had voted, the organization said.

Information Minister Anas el-Fiqqi said the voting was taking place in “complete transparency.”

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