Egyptians were voting yesterday on a proposed constitution that has polarized their nation, with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist supporters backing the charter, while liberals, secular Muslims and Christians oppose it.
With the nation divided by a political crisis defined by mass protests and deadly violence, the vote has turned into a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and an ultraconservative Salafi bloc, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.
“The times of silence are over,” bank employee Essam el-Guindy said as he waited to cast his ballot in Cairo’s upscale Zamalek district. “I am not OK with the constitution. Morsi should not have let the country split like this.”
El-Guindy was one of about 20 standing in a line for men waiting to vote. A separate women’s line had twice as many people. Elsewhere in Cairo, hundreds of voters began queuing outside polling stations nearly two hours before the voting started at 8am.
“I read parts of the constitution and saw no reason to vote against it,” Rania Wafik said as she held her newborn baby while waiting in line. “We need to move on and I just see no reason to vote against the constitution.”
Highlighting the tension in the run-up to the vote, about 120,000 army troops were deployed yesterday to protect polling stations. A radical Islamist group also said it would send its own members to defend the stations alongside the army and police.
Clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks have left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.
“No, to the constitution of blood,” the red banner headline of the independent daily al-Masry al-Youm said.
Critics are concerned about the charter’s legitimacy after most judges said they would not supervise the vote. Rights groups have also warned of opportunities for widespread fraud and the opposition says a decision to hold the vote on two separate days to make up for the shortage of judges leaves the door open for initial results to sway voter opinion.
Egypt has 51 million eligible voters, of whom about 26 million were supposed to cast their ballots yesterday and the rest next week. Yesterday’s vote was held in 10 provinces, including Cairo and Alexandria, the country’s second largest and scene of violent clashes on Friday between opponents and supporters of Morsi.
Another newspaper, the pro-opposition al-Watan, published photographs of Morsi’s supporters in Alexandria armed with knives, swords and sticks on the front page of yesterday’s edition.
“A referendum on their constitution,’’ read the headline, alluding to the Islamists.
Egypt’s latest crisis, the worst since former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising nearly two years ago, began when Morsi issued a decree on Nov. 22 giving himself and the assembly writing the draft immunity from judicial oversight so the document could be finalized before an expected court ruling dissolving the panel.
On Nov. 30, the document was passed by an assembly composed mostly of Islamists.
Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei yesterday wrote on his Twitter account: “Listen to your conscience and the voice of reason and say ‘no.’”
Morsi’s opponents say minority concerns have been ignored and the charter is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow the ruling Islamists to restrict civil liberties, ignore women’s rights and undermine labor unions.