CAIRO — Egypt’s top election official declared Wednesday that turnout was high in a national referendum, but a boycott by a wider-than-expected range of ultra-conservative Islamists raised the prospects of continued polarization.
The majority of Egyptians who converged at the polls appeared to support the charter, which was likely to pass in voting Tuesday and Wednesday amid an intense media campaign in its favor and a tight security grip silencing its opponents. The interim government was seeking a high turnout as a mandate for its vision of the country’s future.
The constitution is a key piece of a political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a test of public opinion about the coup that removed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood from power last July. It is a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi’s Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.
In its first test after siding with the military-backed government, the lone major ultraconservative voice in support of the new draft charter, the Al-Nour Salafi party, appeared unable to bring masses of its followers to the polls. Turnout was very low in Salafi strongholds, especially in villages and small towns.
In many of villages near Giza, home to the Pyramids west of Cairo, polling centers saw only a trickle of voters all day long. It was a stark contrast to the December 2012 referendum, when Salafi organizers ferried voters on motorcycles and minibuses to polling stations, where they stood on long lines.
Those who did vote this week often faced ridicule.
In Om Khanan village, a woman who identified herself as Um Mohammed, her face covered in a veil, said Muslim Brotherhood supporters yelled “You are selling your religion” at her as she headed to vote.
“Does Shariah and religion endorse killings?” she asked, referring to violence carried out by Muslim extremists over the past several months, including suicide bombings and attacks targeting several security headquarters.
Her sister, who asked to be identified as Um Ahmed, interrupted, saying, “They wanted to drag the country into another Syria. But this is Egypt. It will never be this way.”
The Muslim Brotherhood, which was once the country’s best organized political organization, was already boycotting and calling for demonstrations, which never did materialize.
A Muslim Brotherhood-led alliance accused authorities of vote-rigging.
“The boxes were left between the arms of corruption at night,” it said in a statement. “What is happening in a systematic forgery over two days adding to the crimes of the coup.”
No deaths were reported Wednesday, a day after 11 people were killed, including some in clashes with police. Near the presidential palace, dozens of protesters held a brief demonstration before police dispersed them with tear gas.
The current government is looking for a bigger “yes” majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for the military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to run for president this year. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation’s highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.
After polls closed, Judge Nabil Salib, head of the supreme election committee, told Egypt’s state TV that initial reports point to a high turnout. He said results are expected to be announced on Friday.
“The turnout will be the highest if compared to past polls,” he saidre.
He did not give a figure, but state TV said initial results showed 50 percent turnout with more than 90 percent voting yes.
In Cairo’s upscale eastern district of Heliopolis, patriotic songs about the military blared from loudspeakers mounted on pickup trucks. A small group of female voters ululated in approval outside a polling center in the central Mohandessin district. Footage from other polling centers showed female voters dancing. Many voters said the referendum consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood to a bygone era.
“This constitution is a nail in the coffin of the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Badiea Mansour, a 65-year-old former tourism employee.
With his four children, Khaled Massoud carried an Egyptian flag and pictures of el-Sissi. His youngest child wore a general’s costume. Massoud said his brother was killed in an attack on a police station in the Giza district of Kirdassa, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We are a coming out to vote for the right of the martyrs, like my brother,” he said.
Newspapers, most of which are secular-leaning and pro-military, claimed a “heavy” turnout on Tuesday was a defeat for Morsi and the Brotherhood.
“The elephant crushed the ant,” read a headline in the daily el-Watan. “Millions defy terror of the (Brotherhood) organization in referendum lines.”
The draft constitution was written by a committee dominated by secular-leaning politicians and experts appointed by the military-backed government. It bans political parties based on religion, limits the role of Islamic law in legislation and gives women equal rights.
“The amendments were empty of God’s book and the prophet’s sayings and were full of trash and absurdity, away from religion,” influential Salafi cleric Sheik Mustafa el-Adawi pronounced on the Al-Nada Islamists’ TV network.
Salafis advocate strict segregation of the sexes and an unbendingly literal interpretation of the Quran, saying society should mirror the way the Prophet Muhammad ruled the early Muslims in the 7th century. They say they want to turn Egypt into a pure Islamic society, implementing strict Shariah, or Islamic law. Men are known for their long beards, with the mustache shaved off — a style they say was worn by Muhammad — while the women wear the “niqab,” an enveloping black robe and veil that leaves only the eyes visible.
Ironically, during Morsi’s term many blamed Salafis for radicalizing his group and insisting on more Islamic-based legislation.
After the coup, the military shut down Salafis’ TV networks and the interim government confiscated assets of some of their charities for having links to the Brotherhood. Mohammed Abdel-Mawgoud, a former Al-Nour party member, said that Egyptians wearing traditional robes and long beards or women covering their faces are targeted in the streets and harassed as part of a wave of public resentment at conservative Islamists, which added to many reasons why most Salafis stayed away from the polls.
Al-Nour’s decision to support the draft appeared grounded in a desire to secure a safe spot for itself — and perhaps even a hand in power — amid a relentless media campaign against Islamist groups and an intensive crackdown has left thousands of Morsi’s supporters behind bars or killed during violent clashes.
Some influential clerics affiliated with Al-Nour blamed Morsi for overreaching, accusing him of appointing members of his own group in top posts in the government and resisting calls for sharing power. Others voiced opposition to the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood’s protest camps.
However, Al-Nour appeared to have little support.
“The Salafis are not organized parties. They follow their clerics. If clerics say boycott, they don’t go vote,” said Yousseri Hammad, spokesman of the Salafi Watan party, whose leader was Morsi’s adviser.
Associated Press writers Mariam Rizk, Maggie Hyde and Laura Dean in Cairo contributed to this report.