Egyptians in Mass. share in historic vote

For now, ballots are symbolic

Harvard graduate student Mariam Mahmoud (left) cast a symbolic vote on Egypt’s constitutional referendum yesterday in Harvard Square. Harvard graduate student Mariam Mahmoud (left) cast a symbolic vote on Egypt’s constitutional referendum yesterday in Harvard Square. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By John M. Guilfoil
Globe Staff / March 20, 2011

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CAMBRIDGE — As crowds turned out to vote in Egypt’s first democratic referendum in decades, a crowd of young local Egyptians gathered at Harvard Square yesterday to speak out about an election they could not participate in.

“People in Egypt are starting get more politically involved, especially the youth,’’ said Dalia Said, 24, a Harvard University student living in Cambridge. “It’s considered uncool if you’re not politically aware and trying to make changes in Egypt.’’

Record turnout was expected in Egypt yesterday, as residents voted on constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling military. The nationwide referendum was the first major test of the country’s transition to democracy after a popular uprising ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.

Barred from casting their votes on the referendum, as Egypt has no absentee balloting system, dozens of Egyptian citizens living in the area gathered near the MBTA stop in Harvard Square to stage their own symbolic vote.

A “yes’’ vote would make several changes to the current constitution and allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held later this year or early next year, a time frame that critics say is too soon for the dozens of political groups born out of the anti-Mubarak uprising to organize themselves and be able to effectively compete in elections. According to the organizers of yesterday’s event, a “no’’ vote would allow for the creation of a committee to scrap and completely rewrite the constitution.

“In Egypt, it’s a historic moment. Millions are going to vote,’’ said Ahmed Elewa, 30, a doctoral candidate at Harvard who organized the event. “It’s like the first elections in South Africa after apartheid.’’

Voters were given ballots after showing their Egyptian identification cards. Elewa collected each paper ballot and stamped each person’s hand after he or she voted, reminiscent of the practice of voters dipping a finger in ink after casting a ballot in Egypt.

The “nos’’ had it, with 36 of the 37 voters calling for a new Egyptian constitution.

Egyptians like Roba Khorshid, 26, of Winchester, said that simply amending what she considers to be a broken document does not go far enough.

“They are just amending certain articles, but what about the rest of the constitution?’’ she asked.

“We’re going to go back to the Stone Age if people vote yes,’’ said documentary filmmaker Raouf Zaki, 43. “We have the right to change the constitution now, and if we don’t, it’s going to go back to pharaoh rule.’’

The results of the national referendum vote are expected in Egypt today.

Mubarak resigned Feb. 11 after a popular uprising that drew international headlines. He had been in office for 30 years, and many Egyptians had avoided the polls in the past, as elections were marred by rigging, corruption, and intimidation from the ruling party. The uprising has changed that.

“We grew up and our parents and grandparents never voted and never encouraged us to be politically active,’’ Khorshid said. “And today, my mom voted, my dad voted, my sister voted, everyone I know voted. People that were never interested in politics — it’s just amazing. It’s like a holiday.’’

Dina El Zahaby, 36, of Cairo, is visiting the United States and could not vote in the referendum, so she came to Cambridge to be with her fellow Egyptians.

“I feel like I am participating,’’ she said. “I wish I was in Egypt today. I felt that I had to do something for my country, so I came to participate here.’’

El Zahaby also voted “no.’’

“Our old constitution needs to be changed,’’ she said.

Yesterday’s Harvard Square voters said they feel that the best chance for lasting democracy and legitimate government is to start over, with a redrawn constitution.

“We just want to make those changes in the most ethically and clear way possible,’’ Said said.

These Egyptians away from home are also hoping to gain the right to vote in future elections.

“There is hope that when the new constitution is created, language will be added to allow Egyptians living abroad to vote,’’ said Dina Soliman, 33, an architect living in Framingham, as her 4-year-old son, Daniel Elabbasi, waved an Egyptian flag.

“We’re making a statement,’’ said Khorshid.

Material from Globe wire services was used in this report.