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Egyptians vote on Islamist-backed constitution
First Published Dec 15 2012 12:53 pm • Last Updated Dec 15 2012 03:23 pm

Cairo • 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.

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.

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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.


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"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.

Mohammed Hudhaifa, 41 and a school teacher with a light beard, told Bakheet he should not offend Muslim beliefs.

"I am a Muslim whose religion is a way of life that deals with every little and big thing," he said. The constitution, he continued, gives Christians freedom to worship, "But I will not accept that you tear my religion to shreds," he angrily told Bakheet. Feeling threatened by the chorus of endorsement Huddhaifa earned from fellow Muslims in the line, Bakheet bowed out.

"I took part in this revolution and got injured. If I knew it would come to this, I wouldn’t have participated," he said as he walked away from the hostile crowd.

In Cairo’s central and densely populated Sayeda Zeinab district, home to a much 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 mustache-less beard that is a hallmark of hardline Salafi Muslims.

Flight attendant Iman Naguib Mahfouz, a Christian, had a different take on the crisis, speaking kilometers (miles) away in Nasr City, a district in eastern Cairo that is a Brotherhood stronghold.

"I am a Christian and either way we are living in a Muslim state," she said. "But this president is not representing Egyptians, he’s representing the Muslim Brotherhood."

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