Reporting from Cairo — Egyptians will head to the polls for their country's first fully free balloting in decades Saturday, charged with deciding whether to accept the ruling military council's proposed democratic reforms.
The vote features eight constitutional amendments designed to help the government's transition after a popular uprising that led to the resignation of former President Hosni Mubarak in February. The poll comes in advance of presidential and parliamentary elections also planned for this year.
The amendments, which must be voted on as a bloc, include a limit of two four-year terms for president. Elections would be held under judicial supervision, and the country's high court would decide disputed races. A vice president would have to be appointed within 60 days of a presidential election.
The amendments would also restrict the use of the emergency law that allows security forces to detain citizens without charge.
About 45 million Egyptian voters will be eligible to cast ballots on the amendments, and the government has dropped requirements for a special voting card and will allow citizens to vote at the polling place of their choosing to maximize turnout. The country has been without fully free elections since the 1950s.
The military council has not said what will happen if the country votes against the bloc of amendments and seems eager to see the referendum pass, hoping it will ease the quick transfer of power to an elected leader. The amendments also have the support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has long been officially banned from Egyptian politics, and elements of Mubarak's former ruling party.
A vote in favor of the amendments would adjust the nation's 1971 constitution, not scrap it, and that reality has reunited many of the forces that gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square to now oppose the offered constitutional changes.
"Keeping Mubarak's constitution, even temporarily, is [an] insult to [the] revolution," Mohamed ElBaradei, a prominent opposition figure who has emerged as a presidential candidate, said on Twitter.
The proposed amendments also would allow candidates from any political party to run, but they would have to be Egyptians without dual nationality, and without foreign parents or a foreign spouse.
Further constitutional revisions would be implemented by a council appointed by the future president and parliament, which has raised some concerns that future leaders might use the power to entrench themselves.
Other provisions limit the say of appointed members of parliament in the nomination of presidential candidates and the selection of those who will draft further revisions. The limitations have infuriated a coalition of women's groups that has issued a letter urging voters to oppose the amendments in Saturday's election. Most female members of parliament are appointed, not elected.
"We will definitely vote 'no,'" said Nevine Ebid, an administrator at a feminist organization. "Revolutions only happen every 50 or 100 years. We have no moment but now to make sure that women will have a fair playing field for the foreseeable future."
The all-male panel of jurists who drafted the amendments has been silent when asked whether the government would retain a quota for women in the parliament.
"I think it's a disgrace that right now, in the middle of a revolution, we managed to overthrow a despotic leader and exercise so much change, yet people are still backpedaling on behalf of women," said Riham Sheble, a prominent activist against female genital mutilation in Egypt.
Members of the panel that drafted the amendments have called them a first step as the country reshapes itself.
"The amendments will enable Egyptians to decide their own destiny," said Sobhi Saleh, a lawyer who worked on the referendum language.
Hassan is a news assistant in The Times' Cairo bureau. Special correspondent Doha Al Zohairy contributed to this report.