CAIRO (AP) — Egyptians took their quarrel over a draft constitution to polling stations Saturday after weeks of violent turmoil between the newly empowered Islamists and the mostly liberal opposition over the future identity of the nation.
Key Egyptian rights groups on Sunday called for a repeat of the first round of a constitutional referendum on grounds that the vote was marred by widespread violations.
Representatives of the seven groups told a news conference that Saturday’s vote in 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces lacked sufficient supervision by judges. They alleged that some individuals falsely identified themselves as judges, that vote counting was not witnessed by monitors and some women were prevented from voting.
The claim of widespread violations came only hours after President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brother group claimed that a majority of Egyptians who voted on a proposed Islamist-backed constitution have approved the document.
Turnout was unofficially estimated at around 32 percent.
Regardless of the outcome, the heated arguments among voters standing in line signaled that the referendum over the contentious charter is unlikely to end Egypt’s worst political crisis since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
The voting capped a nearly two-year struggle over the post-Mubarak identity of Egypt, with the latest crisis over the charter evolving into a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.
Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed to help the police protect polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded. The large-scale deployment did not stop a mob of supporters of ultraconservative cleric Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail attacking the Cairo offices of the liberal Wafd party, a member of an opposition alliance that has campaigned against the draft constitution.
“Today I would like to offer my condolences to the Egyptian people on the collapse of the rule of law,” Wafd leader El-Sayyed el-Badawi said.
The opposition called for a “no” vote, while Morsi’s supporters said the constitution will help end the political instability that has roiled Egypt since the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown. Clerics, from the pulpits of mosques, have defended the constitution as a document that champions Islam.
The draft would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, or Islamic law, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter’s drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.
According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style “religious police” to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft — regardless of what the laws on the books say.
For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter’s parliamentary elections. Morsi rejected opposition demands that he cancel the referendum.
When voting day finally arrived, the anger and frustration of the past three weeks remained and scenes of voters hotly debating the cons and pros of the constitution or countering each other’s take on Morsi, the Brotherhood, the Salafis or reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei were common.
“Those who wrote the constitution are God-fearing men,” Mohammed Hassan el-Khatab, a bearded 52-year-old government employee, yelled as he stood in line outside a polling center in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria.
“Those opposed to the constitution are just noisy, they have no popular base. Let the people decide,” said el-Khatab, whose support for the draft is typical in his low-income el-Siouf district, home to a mix of Christian, Muslim Brotherhood supporters and Salafis.
Girgis Bakheet, a 56-year-old Christian decorator, overheard el-Khatab and decided to weigh in on the debate with an instant dismissal of the notion that being God-fearing is a qualification for writing a constitution.
“This is a constitution that is stillborn. It doesn’t represent all people. Arguing that it observes God’s laws is a good thing, but only on the face of it. God has nothing to do with constitutions and elections,” he said.