Last updated: December 16, 2012 7:18 am

Thin lead for Egypt draft constitution backers

Early results in Saturday’s first stage of Egypt’s referendum on a draft constitution showed supporters of the charter with a narrow but significant lead.

The unofficial tally – compiled by independent and partisan monitors at polling stations and published on the website of the state-owned Ahram daily – showed backers of the divisive draft law with 56.5 per cent of the vote.

Though voting continues in the second half of the country next week, Saturday’s vote is significant because it includes Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt’s two biggest cities and bastions of opposition to the constitution.

The document was largely drafted by President Mohamed Morsi’s Islamist allies and presented to the public without the agreement of liberals, leftists and Coptic Christians.

Starkly divided over the proposed charter, Egypt headed to the polls in droves on Saturday to decide its fate. Observers reported hundreds of irregularities, including widespread allegations that officials slowed down the vote in polling centers regarded as strongly opposed to the draft charter.

After nightfall, alleged Islamist enforcers attacked and firebombed the headquarters of the Wafd party, Egypt’s oldest liberal opposition group.

The referendum, to be carried out over consecutive Saturdays across Egypt, may mark a decisive end of the broad ideological coalition that drove longtime President Hosni Mubarak from power last year. The country’s Islamist and liberal camps now find themselves confronting each other to shape the post Mubarak order.

Turnout appeared to be above 50 per cent in the 10 provinces that voted on Saturday, election officials said. Voters appeared to recognise the historic importance of the plebiscite, held with minimal oversight after large segments of the judiciary refused to monitor it. Waiting in lines that stretched along pavements, they said the constitution would set the ground rules for the country.

“You have to stand for what you believe in,” said Wael Koptin, a 44-year-old physician waiting in line to vote in central Cairo. He said he would vote against the draft charter. “This is an important time to speak your mind.”

Voters queued in line for hours from the moment polls opened at 8am. Some polling stations received few voters in the early morning, with traffic picking up in the early afternoon.

Voters at some polling stations described frustratingly long waits and an absence of officials supervising the polls. Observers said many voting stations from previous elections had been combined, owing to the shortage of judges.

But gone was the festive spirit of national unity and pride that characterised votes for parliament and the presidency over the past two years. At least 10 people have died in street clashes between supporters and opponents of the draft charter. The two sides clashed again violently on Friday in Alexandria.

“This time there’s no happiness – there’s sadness,” said Amal Aoun, an art and music teacher waiting to vote at a polling station in the Zamalek district of Cairo. “There are people who died in the streets over this constitution. Hopefully those who are responsible will be held to account.”

Television channels showed images of long lines in the impoverished Saida Zainab district of Cairo, with a mixture of veiled and unveiled women, and men in traditional gowns and modern street clothes waiting patiently.

State television showed Mr Morsi casting his vote in a Helipolis polling station. His organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, has the most at stake. His supporters have been out in full force, stationed outside polling stations to help voters. Many of the constitution’s backers acknowledge it is an imperfect document.

“For two years we have been very slow to move forward,” said Mohamed Mahmoud, a 45-year-old engineer who serves as a local captain in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party. “The constitution could be better than what we have. But we have the mechanism to change it. At least we’ll have something real to quarrel about.”

Opponents of the draft say it will only serve to prolong Egypt’s troubles by extending the powers of the president and weakening the poor.

“Today we say no to the constitution of tyranny, not to the constitution of price increases and the denial of rights for the poor,” opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist nationalist who ran for president this year, wrote on his Twitter page.

Additional reporting by Leyla Doss

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