CAIRO – Waving swords and clubs, Islamist supporters of Egypt’s draft constitution clashed with opponents in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria on Friday as tempers flared on the eve of the referendum on the disputed charter – the country’s worst political crisis since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak.
Both sides stepped up their campaigns after weeks of violence and harsh divisions that have turned today’s vote into a fight over Egypt’s post-revolutionary identity. Highlighting the tension that may lie ahead, nearly 120,000 army soldiers will deploy to protect polling stations. A radical Islamist group also said it will send its own members to defend the stations alongside the army and police.
The referendum pits Egypt’s newly empowered Islamists against liberals, many apolitical Christians and secular-leaning Muslims. President Mohammed Morsi’s supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has gripped Egypt since February 2011, when the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown in a popular uprising. Clerics, using mosque pulpits, defend the constitution as championing Islam.
Morsi’s opponents say minority concerns have been ignored and the charter is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow Islamists to restrict civil liberties, ignore women’s rights and undermine labor unions.
The opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, again called on Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, to postpone the referendum and form a new assembly to draft a new constitution.
Thousands of Islamists filled a square in eastern Cairo, raising pictures of Morsi. A few miles away, the opposition chanted for a “no” vote in a sit-in outside the presidential palace.
Religious authorities had issued orders that mosques should not be used to manipulate the vote, but several clerics took to the pulpit to tell their congregations that voting in favor of the constitution is a way to seek victory for Islam.
In Alexandria, witness Mustafa Saqa said Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi, a well-known cleric in the ultraconservative Islamic sect known as Salafis, urged worshippers to vote “yes” and described the opposition as “followers of infidels.” His comments sparked arguments that quickly turned into fistfights and spread into the streets and residential areas around the mosque.
At least 19 people were reported injured in the violence and police fired tear gas to break up a standoff. State TV showed footage of Islamists brandishing swords as protesters hurled rocks at each other, while el-Mahalawi remained barricaded in the mosque.