CAIRO – Egyptians began voting Saturday for a constitution that sharpens divisions between Islamists and secularists and intensifies the dangerous struggle over the country’s political identity nearly two years after the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s police state.
Voters streamed through slums and wealthy enclaves in an uninspired atmosphere on a day meant to enshrine hallowed ideals into law. Soldiers and police stood guard and questions arose over adequate judicial supervision. Many said they believed the country’s polarization would only deepen after the votes were counted.
The voting encompassed Cairo and cities in 10 governorates. Official results won’t be released until the second and final day of balloting in other regions next Saturday. State media and the Muslim Brotherhood reported that early results show the majority approved the constitution. But opposition parties said about 65 percent of voters cast ballots against the charter.
“This constitution just isn’t right,” said Ayat Ahmed, a homemaker in a neighborhood of craftsmen and mechanics. “It doesn’t represent anyone so why are they trying to rush it through?”
The document, drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly, symbolizes the failure of President Mohammed Morsi’s government to unify Egypt after 30 years of autocratic rule. The country has broken into two camps: Islamists who view the constitution as a gradual step toward Shariah, or Islamic law, and liberals who fear the document endangers freedom of expression and rights for workers, women and Coptic Christians.
Many Egyptians indicated their yes vote was less an endorsement than a hope that a new constitution would end months of political turmoil.
“We’ve been living through instability for a year and a half. The economy is suffering,” said Hassan Ahmed, a government employee. “We are ready for the constitution because we are ready to have a parliament. We want stability back.”
Turnout was high among Egypt’s 51 million eligible voters and polling was extended by more than three hours: Hundreds of women – some peering through face veils, others wearing designer sunglasses, their hair uncovered – waited outside a school in a neighborhood of gardeners and luxury cars. But in a faraway working-class neighborhood, laborers trickled into a polling station.
Security officials reported mostly minor violence except a case in which Islamists firing rubber bullets and hurling gasoline bombs attacked an opposition party newspaper. Reports of voting violations surfaced Saturday night including unstamped ballots, Islamists trying to sway voters in polling lines and Christian women being denied the right to vote.
But many Egyptians complained that the document was finalized only two weeks ago in a 16-hour surreal session by an Islamist-led assembly hurrying to pre-empt a court decision questioning its legitimacy.
The proposed constitution is not overtly Islamic. It mirrors the constitution under Mubarak by stating that Egypt will be guided by the “principles” of Shariah. But vague new language and an article allowing clerics to be consulted on legislation have raised fears that the Brotherhood and conservative Islamists could manipulate the charter.
The document galvanized a disparate opposition led by the National Salvation Front against concerns that Morsi, once a leader in the Brotherhood, is edging toward unrepresentative government.