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The Egyptian people cast their votes

Egypt, March 21, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Reham, who had never voted before last weekend's referendum in Egypt, looks at the voter card. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Reham casts her ballot. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Reham proudly shows off the pink ink on her finger. It can't be washed off for at least 24 hours, and is used as a way to track voters. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Just a few weeks ago I was in Cairo's Tahrir Square as the Egyptian people demanded their right to freedom and democracy. This weekend I had the opportunity to witness Egypt’s first steps towards the people’s long-awaited dream.

Egypt held its first free and fair election: a referendum that called for voters to either accept or reject eight constitutional amendments meant to establish the foundations for coming elections.

Throughout Egypt, people waited in long lines on Saturday to vote. In Cairo, people waited for more than three hours to cast their votes. Many said they were voting for the first time in their lives.

Reham, a 27-year old banker who was a protestor just a few weeks ago in Tahrir Square, told me she had never voted prior to this referendum.

“Before I never bothered voting. It was so corrupt there was no reason to,” she told me as she waited patiently for her chance to vote.

Reham also did not have the official government-issued voter card that was required to vote when Mubarak was in power. Almost everyone I spoke to in line for the referendum told me they could not vote under Mubarak because getting the official voter card was very difficult and was only issued to people who were pro-Mubarak. Now that Mubarak is gone, people only need to be 18 years old and have an identity card to cast their vote.

The spirit of the January 25th revolution and the implementation of free and fair elections resulted in a huge turnout of voters from all classes and backgrounds. In previous elections, a turnout of around four to five million voters — or 10 to 15 percent of the electorate — was the norm, and many of them were bused in by the government and paid for their votes. This referendum’s turnout of 41 percent among the 45 million eligible voters broke all records for recent elections.

“I am so happy to be voting today,” said Reham. It is the beginning of our democracy in Egypt and we all want to change Egypt to be a better country.”

In the end, the people of Egypt voted to approve the changes to the constitution and for legislative elections in the next three months, and the presidential elections as soon as August. The opposing side, primarily liberal, cited concerns that the measures that allow for rapid elections do not provide adequate time to for the formation of effective political organizations.

Reham, who voted against the final outcome, was not as disappointed with the results as I expected.

“The elections were free and fair, which is what I was demonstrating for,” she told me after the results were announced. “Even if I did not win the decision I wanted, we still got what we risked our lives for — a chance to vote for our future. Next time, I hope my vote is on the winning side, but today I am just happy I finally had a chance to vote.”