CAIRO - With their nation's future at stake, Egyptians lined up Saturday to vote on a draft constitution after weeks of turmoil that have left them deeply divided between Islamist supporters of the charter and those who fear it will usher in religious rule.
The referendum caps a nearly two-year struggle over the post-revolutionary identity of Egypt after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.
Activists on both sides describe it as a battle over Egypt's post-revolutionary identity: whether it will move toward a religious state under President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi allies, with Islamic principles limiting rights and clerics have a say over legislation, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character. But many Egyptians said they were mainly looking for stability.
Monitors from opposition parties and rights groups have so far reported a wide range of irregularities in Saturday's vote. They have not reported any systematic countrywide fraud but reports of violations increased as night fell. In one stark example in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, some 1,500 Egyptian women from a liberal-leaning district blocked a main road claiming a judge prevented them from voting.
Election authorities also extended voting by two hours, to 11 p.m. (2100 GMT, 4 p.m. EST) because of continued long lines and delays at the polling stations.
Morsi's supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has roiled Egypt since the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown. Some proponents say the draft limits presidential powers and protects against torture and police abuse but others, including clerics preaching from the pulpits of mosques, have taken a more strident line, describing it as a document that champions Islam and denouncing its opponents as nonbelievers.
The president'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 labour unions.
Many also fear the newly empowered Muslim Brotherhood and more ultraconservative Islamists are taking advantage of their current political dominance to adopt a charter that will be nearly impossible to amend.
According to the draft, articles 217 and 218 state that the president and parliament have the right to make a "request" to "amend an article or more," then parliament must discuss the request within 30 days. Two thirds of parliament members are needed to pass the request. Then parliament has 60 days to finalize the amended articles, and a third of parliament is needed to pass the final text before putting them to a national referendum.
Highlighting the tension in the run-up to the vote, nearly 120,000 army troops were deployed on Saturday to protect polling stations. Clashes between Morsi's supporters and opponents over the past three weeks have left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.
"I read parts of the constitution and saw no reason to vote against it," said Rania Wafik as she held her newborn baby while waiting in line in Cairo. "We need to move on and I just see no reason to vote against the constitution."
"I am definitely voting no," said Habiba el-Sayed, a 49-year-old house wife who wears the Muslim veil, or hijab, said in Alexandria. "Morsi took wrong decisions and there is no stability. They (Islamists) are going around calling people infidels. How can there be stability?"
Another female voter in Alexandria, 22-year-old English teacher Yomna Hesham, said she was voting 'no' because the draft is "vague" and ignores women's rights.
"I don't know why we have become so divided ... Now no one wants to look in the other's face," said Hesham, who also wears the hijab, after voting. "This will not end well either way. It is so sad that we have come to this."
Morsi, whose narrow win in June made him Egypt's first freely elected president, cast his ballot at a school in the upscale Heliopolis district. He did not speak to reporters, but waved to dozens of supporters who were chanting his name outside.
In Cairo's crowded Sayedah Zeinab district, home to a revered Muslim shrine, 23-year-old engineer Mohammed Gamal said he was voting "yes" although he felt the proposed constitution needed more, not less, Islamic content.
"Islam has to be a part of everything," said Gamal, who wore the moustache-less beard that is a hallmark of hard-line Salafi Muslims. "All laws have to be in line with Shariah," he said, referring to Islamic law.
Critics are questioning the charter's legitimacy after the majority of 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.
The shortage of judges was reflected in the chaos engulfing some polling stations, which by early afternoon had led the election commission to extend voting by two hours until 9 p.m.
The violations reported by monitors included polling centres without judges to oversee the process, civil employees illegally replacing the judges, ballot papers not officially stamped as per regulations, campaigning inside polling stations and Christian voters being turned away.
The protesting women in Alexandria claimed that the supervising judge stalled voting because he suspected that most of the polling station's estimated 7,000 registered voters were "no" voters on the basis of of the district's liberal elections record.
Nada Abdel-Azem, a 23-year-old-teacher, said that the judge "took two hours to pray, another hour to pray and talk on the phone. He tried to make people get fed up so we leave. He even asked one woman what is she voting for. Then he closed the door and left women outside."
Another protesting woman Amira Abdel-Azem, a hospital manager, said the judge was only allowing women wearing a niqab, a veil that covers everything but the eyes, to cast ballots. It was not possible to immediately verify her account or speak to the judge.
Alexandria about 220 kilometres (135 miles) north of Cairo, is a stronghold of ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis but gave comparatively few votes to Morsi during presidential elections. It has witnessed streets clashes over the disputed charter and it is perceived as one of Egypt's most rebellious cities.
Mohammed Ahmed, a retired army officer from Cairo, said bearded men he suspects of being Muslim Brotherhood members were whispering "vote yes" to men standing in line outside a polling centre in Cairo's poor district of Arab el-Maadi.
"The Brotherhood wants to turn Egypt into its own fiefdom," he said. "I have no confidence in the whole process and I know they will be able to forge the results," he said.
In another Cairo district of Darb el-Ahmar, judge Mohammed Ibrahim appeared overwhelmed with the flow of voters, many of whom had to wait for close to two hours to cast their ballots. "I'm trying hard here, but responsibilities could have been better distributed," he said.
Egypt has 51 million eligible voters, half of whom are supposed to cast their ballots Saturday in 10 provinces and the rest next week.
Egypt's latest crisis, the worst since Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising in February 2011, 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, in a marathon session despite a walkout by secular activists and Christians from the 100-member panel.
If the constitution is approved by a simple majority of voters, the Islamists empowered when Mubarak was ousted would likely gain even more clout. The current upper house of parliament, dominated by Islamists, would be given the authority to legislate until a new parliament is elected.
If it is defeated, elections would be held within three months for a new panel to write a new constitution. In the meantime, legislative powers would remain with Morsi.
El Deeb reported from Alexandria, Egypt. Associated Press writer Maggie Michael in Cairo contributed to this report.
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