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Egyptians to vote Saturday in constitutional referendum

By Reza Sayah
An Egyptian soldier stands guard outside the Egyptian parliament in Cairo on Monday, March 14.
An Egyptian soldier stands guard outside the Egyptian parliament in Cairo on Monday, March 14.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The proposed constitutional amendments will set the stage for elections
  • Some say the amendments aren't enough, and a completely new constitution is needed
  • Youth groups have called for protests Friday

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- A debate is raging on street corners, television airwaves and social networking websites over a historic referendum in Egypt Saturday -- viewed by many as the country's first democratic initiative after the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime.

"I'm voting yes," said shopkeeper Mahmoud Aliwa. "The corrupt people are gone. This is the first step."

"If I vote yes, I will reinvent the same old constitution," said Moussad Hassan, a 42-year-old guest booker for an Egyptian TV station. "The revolution demands a full change, not partial change."

More than 40 million Egyptians are eligible to take their views to the ballot box and vote on amendments to the constitution that would set the stage for parliamentary and presidential elections later this year.

Blitzer: Egypt is a work in progress
Blitzer reports from Cairo
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Thousands of protesters in Cairo and other cities marched for change and Mubarak's ouster in late January, part of a tide of popular uprising in the Arab world that previously toppled the regime in Tunisia.

A council of legal experts, assembled by Egypt's ruling armed forces, drafted the amendments to be voted on last month. The measures include limiting the president to two four-year terms, capping emergency laws to six months -- unless extended by a public referendum -- and placing elections under judicial oversight.

Opponents say the proposed amendments were rushed and fall short of the people's demands. Several pro-democracy youth groups have called for street protests on Friday. They claim an early referendum gives an unfair edge to the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mubarak's National Democratic Party -- well entrenched and politically savvy groups that are much better prepared to mobilize voters than newer factions still scrambling to get organized.

Many critics of the amendments demand a new constitution.

"We are urging the people to go vote 'no' on referendum day," said Ziad Aleibi, a member of The January 25 Coalition, a political faction made up of six youth groups. "One of our main demands when the revolution started was a new constitution."

Presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei used his Twitter page to reject the amendments.

"Even within arbitrary six-months transitional period, drafting a new constitution is doable," ElBaradei Tweeted. "Why rush @ the expense of democracy?"

Some critics of Saturday's vote say Egypt's security apparatus is ill-prepared for an election day. Most police officers only returned to their posts this week, still wary of a public that has yet to forgive and forget years of police abuse. A face-off between an anxious and edgy police force and a highly charged public could make for an explosive mix.

But all indications are that the referendum will take place. The military has declared Saturday a national holiday and assigned thousands of security agents to patrol approximately 13,000 polling places throughout the country.

"Egypt needs to restart political life and hand over power to a civilian rule," said Essam El Erian, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood. "We have launched a large campaign to convince Egyptians. We are doing everything we can to convince people to vote 'yes' on referendum day."

With Saturday's watershed referendum fast approaching, no one seems certain of the outcome. It's a clear sign that for the first time in decades, Egyptians will be taking part in free elections, where the vote hasn't been fixed by the regime.

"For the first time I feel Egypt is free," said 32-year-old taxi driver Mohamed Saeed. "It feels good."

Journalists Dina Amer and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report

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