EGYPTIANS will vote today in a referendum over a new draft constitution backed by Islamists that has divided the Arab world’s most populous country.
Supporters and opponents of president Mohammed Morsi, who rushed through the draft, held rival rallies across Egypt yesterday, on the eve of the vote.
Clashes erupted outside a mosque in Alexandria, Egypt’s second city, after its Imam urged a Yes vote during Friday prayers. Nearly 20 people were injured as activists threw stones at each other and fought street battles armed with clubs and knives. At least three cars were set on fire.
Tensions have run high following weeks of rival protests over the constitution. Nine people were killed and hundreds wounded during clashes in Cairo last week, further polarising the two camps.
In the capital yesterday, protests remained largely peaceful. Opposition supporters marched to the presidential palace in Heliopolis and supporters of the president, predominately Muslim Brotherhood members and ultra-conservative Salafists, gathered a short distance away at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque in Nasr City.
Two days before the vote Mohammed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and opposition figure, had reiterated a call for Mr Morsi to delay the vote in order to avoid “the spectre of civil war” in a last-minute television address.
The vote will be held in two stages because of a shortage of judges available to oversee the process. Ten provinces including Cairo and Alexandria will vote today while the rest of Egypt will vote in a second round to be held next Saturday.
Opponents of the draft constitution, which was hastily completed by an 85-member Islamist-dominated assembly after several minority representatives and opposition figures withdrew from the drafting body, said it failed to protect key personal rights and lacks national consensus.
“Constitutions are supposed to be consensual documents because both the winners and the losers need to feel committed to following the rules of the game,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Opposition forces had repeatedly called for the referendum to be postponed so that a compromise could be reached. After Mr Morsi showed no sign of delaying the vote a coalition of opposition figures known as the National Salvation Front finally called on Egyptians to vote against the draft late last week. The coalition includes Mr ElBaradei, Amr Moussa, the former secretary-general of the Arab League, and Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist who came third in the presidential elections.
“We believe the constitution is an illegal draft prepared by one political faction,” said Khaled Daoud, for the National Salvation Front, referring to Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood party. “We have continued to ask for a postponement of the vote to avoid pushing the country towards confrontation”. Mr Daoud said the coalition had decided that a boycott would not be effective because there is no minimum turnout required.
It remains to be seen whether the late decision to campaign for a No vote will succeed. “It is generally the case that referendums held by governments are passed,” said Egypt analyst, Dr HA Hellyer. Islamists have done well at the polls during the parliamentary and presidential elections and many supporters of the president feel voting against the draft is tantamount to voting against Islam.”