Protesters Return to Cairo's Tahrir on Vote Eve
Pro-democracy activists who spearheaded the mass rallies that ousted Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak were poised for a new protest Friday on the eve of a referendum on the military's transition plans.
The Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution called the rally in Cairo's Tahrir Square to urge voters to reject an amended constitution intended to underpin fresh presidential and parliamentary elections this year and a swift return to civilian rule.
The military council, which took over when Mubarak quit on February 11, has said it will not try to stop the rally even though a ban on all media analysis or opinion pieces on the referendum came into force on Friday morning and was to last until the close of polls at 1700 GMT on Saturday.
The young activists, along with a string of secular political parties and opposition figures, say the timetable being set by the military is way too tight for movements stymied by three decades of authoritarian rule to organize grass-roots support.
They also argue that the package of amendments, hastily drawn up by the panel in just 10 days, does not go nearly far enough in overhauling the Mubarak-era charter, which they say needs to be completely rewritten.
"It is your responsibility to use your vote, don't boycott the March 19 revolution -- say 'no' for a better Egypt," the youth activists said in a message on their Facebook page.
The military itself has studiously kept above the fray, urging "yes" and "no" supporters alike to have their voices heard and turn out to vote.
In a statement on its Facebook page, the military council described the vote as "democratic Egypt's birth certificate".
"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, referring to the launch date of the anti-Mubarak protests.
In a text message sent to mobile phone subscribers in the early hours of Friday, the armed forces said simply: "The referendum on the constitutional amendments = democracy."
There have been no opinion polls in the run-up to the vote and assessments of its likely outcome have been as divided as views about the proposed changes themselves.
Some analysts predict a majority "yes" vote, at least outside the big cities, given the strong support from the powerful and well-organized Muslim Brotherhood, and the perceived backing of the army, whose popularity is running very high after it sided with the protesters against Mubarak.
Others are more skeptical, pointing to the widespread economic discontent in the provinces that has sparked a wave of strikes and walkouts.
In the run-up to the vote, the press was full of lively debate about the referendum but from Friday morning a complete ban went into force.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces calls on all media -- written, audio, visual, electronic, whether Arabic or foreign (-language) -- not to publish or broadcast any opinions, analysis or recommendations that carry viewpoints on the referendum... whether in favor or against," a statement said on Wednesday.
It added that the measure was not intended as a restriction on free speech but was "aimed at providing a democratic and appropriate environment and enough time for people to form their opinions."
Unlike the Mubarak era when foreign monitoring groups were barred from observing elections, the organizers of Saturday's referendum have been at pains to stress that all watchdog groups, whether Egyptian or foreign, are welcome to check on its conduct.
"The commission is committed to absolute transparency. We have nothing to hide," its chairman Mohammed Atteya said on Tuesday.
But given the tight timetable for the vote just five weeks after Mubarak's resignation, there are no formal foreign observer missions monitoring its conduct.
The 45 million eligible 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.