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Referendum rush imperils Egypt election's legitimacy

| Thursday, Dec. 13, 2012, 9:24 p.m.

CAIRO — Egypt's President Mohamed Morsy's decision to rush a referendum on a new constitution has polarized the country, which has been racked by widespread protests over how the document was drafted.

Now the balloting appears likely to heighten those divisions. With just two days to go before Egyptians are to begin voting on the constitution, there are signs that the rushed vote will be marred by irregularities, a shortage of judges and far fewer international monitors than in past elections.

That's likely to mean that questions about the legitimacy of the vote will exacerbate tensions and lead to more protests and possibly violence. Nine Egyptians died after pro- and anti-Morsy demonstrators clashed last week.

On Thursday, the largest opposition group, the National Salvation Front, said it would not recognize the results if the voting were not transparent and “legitimate.” It claimed that it had found evidence of rigged votes in the international balloting that took place this week, including had participated when they had not and polling stations that closed early. The government denied the charges.

The group insisted on international monitors at polling stations. To date, the largest groups that have monitored past elections here, including the Carter Center from the United States, have said they don't have time to prepare. Instead, only Egyptians will monitor the process.

That seems likely to lead to complaints that the monitors are biased.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the group through which Morsy rose to prominence, very likely will have the most monitors. Meanwhile, opposition groups were pleading for volunteers to register as monitors.

Egyptians spent months preparing for the May and June presidential elections. International monitoring groups took months to help guide and fund the process. This referendum has been pulled together so fast that the judges who are intended to oversee it are scrambling to figure out what they're supposed to do.

At the High Elections Commission headquarters in Cairo, judges who had come to find out which polling stations they had been assigned to were told to come back later.

Many who did know their assignments said they still had not been given the voter rolls they needed to conduct the elections.

Workers said privately that the elections commission did not have enough judges and the vote would be “messy.”

The shortage of judges — thousands are boycotting the referendum to protest Morsy's decision to give himself absolute judicial authority — forced the government to set two dates for voting so the judges can be double-tasked.

Egyptians in the nation's 10 largest governorates, including Cairo and Alexandria, will vote on Saturday. The rest of the country will consider the constitution on Dec. 22.

The system is likely to contribute to tensions over the referendum's outcome, with the results of the first day of voting being released before those voting on the second day have cast their ballots. Some are complaining that will influence how the later voters decide.

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