Egyptians voted on Saturday on a constitution promoted by its Islamist backers as the way out of a prolonged political crisis and rejected by opponents as a recipe for further divisions in the Arab world's biggest nation.
Queues formed outside polling stations in Cairo and other cities and soldiers joined police to secure the referendum process after deadly protests during the build up. Street brawls again erupted on Friday in Alexandria, Egypt's second city.
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President Mohamed Morsi provoked angry demonstrations when he issued a decree last month expanding his powers and then fast-tracked the draft constitution through an assembly dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood group and its allies. At least eight people were killed in clashes last week outside the president's palace.
The liberal, secular and Christian opposition says the constitution is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. Morsi's supporters say the charter is needed if progress is to be made towards democracy nearly two years after the fall of military-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak.
"The sheikhs told us to say 'yes' and I have read the constitution and I liked it," said Adel Imam, a 53-year-old queuing to vote in a Cairo suburb. "The president's authorities are less than before. He can't be a dictator."
'I am voting for a way forward.' Polling station in Cairo (Photo: AP)
Official results will not be announced until after a second round of voting next Saturday. But partial results and unofficial tallies are likely to emerge soon after the first round, giving an idea of the overall trend.
In Alexandria on Friday, tensions boiled over into a street brawl between rival factions armed with clubs, knives and swords. Several cars were set on fire and a Muslim preacher who had urged people to vote "yes" to the constitution was trapped inside his mosque by angry opposition supporters.
Christians, making up about 10% of Egypt's 83 million people and who have long grumbled of discrimination, were among those queuing at a polling station in the port city to oppose the basic law. They fear Islamists, long repressed by Mubarak, will restrict social and other freedoms.
"I voted 'no' to the constitution out of patriotic duty. The constitution does not represent all Egyptians," said Michael Nour, a 45-year-old Christian school teacher in Alexandria.
Islamists are counting on their disciplined ranks of supporters and the many Egyptians who may fall into line in a desperate bid to end turmoil that has hammered the economy and sent Egypt's pound to eight-year lows against the dollar.
Opposers of constitution urge Egyptians to vote (Photo: AFP)
"I voted 'yes' for stability," said shopkeeper Ahmed Abou Rabu, 39. "I cannot say all the articles of the constitution are perfect but I am voting for a way forward. I don't want Egyptians to go in circles, for ever lost in this transition."
Morsi was among the early voters after polls opened at 8 am. (0600 GMT). He was shown on television casting his ballot shielded by a screen and then dipping his finger in ink - a measure to prevent people voting twice.
Polling stations close at 7 pm (1700 GMT), but the deadline could be extended depending on turnout.
Amr Zacharya, a 41-year-old translator from Hebrew to Arabic who lives outside of Cairo told Ynet he plans to vote in favor of the constitution. "I read the constitution and I liked it. They added clauses for Christians as well as Jews, and I was also pleased with the clauses related to the president and his powers. I was also pleased with the fact that the constitution states that a person cannot be arrested without a court order."
Egyptian police officers prepare for vote (Photo: AFP)
Zacharya said he trusts Mohammed Salim al-Awaa, one of the Islamist politicians who drafted the new constitution. According to Zacharya, who voted for al-Awaa in the presidential elections, the recent anti-Morsi protests were not linked to the constitution, but to the upcoming parliamentary elections.
"If the constitution is approved, the parliamentary elections will be held in two months and the liberal parties are not prepared, so the Islamists will win again by a large majority," he said.
Mohammad Hanfi, 20, works as an editor at the al-Dustour newspaper's Israeli affairs desk. In a conversation with Ynet, he explained why he will be voting against the constitution. "I will vote 'no' because this constitution does not represent all segments of Egyptian society. This constitution is riddled with mistakes that may lead Egypt into a dark tunnel. It includes some clauses that were drafted by a committee that was dominated by Islamists," he said, referring to the clauses which grant far-reaching powers to President Morsi. Hanfi says such powers would make Morsi a dictator.
"Some clauses give him the right to change the flag and the geographic borders," he said.
Hanfi estimates that most Egyptians will vote in favor of the constitution. "The Islamist movement has the ability to recruit people. Despite this, I pray to allah that people will vote against the constitution."
After weeks of turbulence, there has been limited public campaigning. Disparate opposition politicians and parties, beaten in two elections since Mubarak's overthrow, only announced on Wednesday they backed a "no" vote over a boycott.
Flag-waving Islamists gathered peacefully at one of the main mosques on Friday, some shouting "Islam, Islam" and "We've come here to say 'yes' to the constitution".
Opposition supporters assembled outside the presidential palace, where there has been a sit-in for days. The walls of the palace, ringed by tanks, are scrawled with anti-Morsi graffiti.
The referendum will be held on two days covering different regions, with the second round on Dec. 22, because there are not enough judges willing to monitor all polling stations after some in the judiciary said they would boycott the vote.
Egyptians are being asked to accept or reject a constitution that must be in place before a parliamentary election can be held next year to replace an Islamist-led parliament dissolved this year. Many hope this will lead Egypt towards stability.
If the constitution is voted down, a new assembly will have to be formed to draft a revised version, a process that could take up to nine months.
Just over half of Egypt's electorate of 51 million will vote in the first round in Cairo and other cities.
To provide security for the vote, the army has deployed about 120,000 troops and 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles to protect polling stations and other government buildings
While the military backed Mubarak and his predecessors, it has not intervened on either side in the present crisis.
The charter has been criticized by some overseas bodies.
The International Council of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights group, said it falls short of international standards on the accountability of the armed forces, the independence of the judiciary, and recognition of human rights.
United Nations human rights experts said the draft should be reviewed to ensure Egypt meets its obligations under international law on equality and women's rights.