Egyptians are set to get their first taste of democracy today after president Hosni Mubarak was forced to relinquish his 30-year grip on power last month in the face of mass street protests.
Just five weeks after the veteran strongman quit, an estimated 45 million eligible voters have the chance to give their verdict on the transitional military government’s plans for a swift return to civilian rule.
A referendum is asking voters to say “yes” or “no” to a package of constitutional changes intended to guide the Arab world’s most populous nation through fresh presidential and parliamentary elections within six months.
An appointed panel of experts drew up the proposed amendments in just 10 days, as the military council which took over on Mubarak’s resignation strives to hand over the reins of power as quickly as possible and keep the army above the political fray.
But the hasty, improvised nature of the proposed constitutional underpinnings of Egypt’s promised new democracy has driven many of the leading groups and figures behind the victorious protest movement to urge a “no” vote.
On the eve of the referendum, thousands of activists returned to Cairo’s iconic Tahrir Square, focal point of the protests against Mubarak, to demonstrate their opposition.
Most of the amendments are by themselves uncontroversial, although critics argue they do not go nearly far enough in overhauling the Mubarak-era charter, which they say needs to be completely rewritten.
The president would serve a maximum of two four-terms and would no longer have the power to refer civilians to the military courts.
The state of emergency which has governed Egyptian life for decades could only be imposed for six months without endorsement in a popular referendum.
Restrictions on who can stand for president would be eased, if not entirely relaxed, and judicial supervision of all elections would be restored to prevent vote-rigging.
The head of the judicial commission overseeing the referendum, Mohammed Atteya, hailed it as among “the first fruits of the revolution” which overthrew Mubarak’s regime at the cost of at least 384 lives.
“This is the first time in Egyptian history voters would be participating in a political process that is both credible and transparent,” he said.
But the youth groups, which spearheaded the protest movement, and a host of secular political parties and opposition figures, say the timetable being set by the military is too tight for movements stymied by three decades of authoritarian rule to organise at grass-roots level.
It has been left to the Muslim Brotherhood – powerful and well-organised despite being outlawed under Mubarak – and elements of his former ruling National Democratic Party to call for a “yes” vote.
Critics say they are the ones who stand to benefit if elections are held too quickly.
The military itself has been studiously non-partisan, urging “yes” and “no” supporters alike to turn out to vote.
“Accepting or rejecting the amendments is the right of each Egyptian. Cast your vote to preserve the gains of the January 25 revolution,” it said in a statement on its Facebook page.
There have been no opinion polls in the run-up to the referendum and assessments of its likely outcome have been as divided as views about the proposed changes.
Some analysts predict a majority “yes” vote, at least outside the big cities, given the strong support of the Brotherhood, and the perceived backing of the army, whose popularity is running high after it sided with the protesters against Mubarak.
Others are more sceptical, pointing to the widespread economic discontent in the provinces that has sparked a wave of strikes and walkouts.
Voters need only a national identity card to cast their ballot, even one that has expired, and can do so in any polling station. Indelible ink is to be used to prevent multiple voting.
Some 34,000 troops are to join police in providing security. Agencies