Islamists claim initial victory in Egypt referendum
CAIRO - Agence France-Presse
A marked ballot paper is seen under the hand of a polling station official in Cairo, on December 15, 2012 at the end of the first day of vote in a referendum on a new constitution. AFP photoA slender majority of Egyptians approved a disputed constitution backed by President Mohamed Morsi and Islamist allies in the first round of a referendum, Islamists and an opposition group said Sunday, citing unofficial results.
Saturday's voting in 10 provinces including Cairo came after weeks of mass protests organised by an opposition coalition that initially aimed to torpedo the referendum, before it instead issued last-minute calls for the draft's rejection.
The unofficial first round results, based on tallies providing by returning officers, fall far short of the landslide Islamists had hoped would quiet the restive opposition and reward Morsi's gamble of rushing through the charter.
By Sunday morning, with most votes tallied, Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party said on its website 56.5 percent voted for the constitution in the hurriedly organised referendum, roughly the same figure reported by Egyptian media.
The second round of voting will be next Saturday, after which the official result will become known.
The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, had announced on Saturday night after polls closed that almost two thirds of voters had rejected the constitution drafted by an Islamist-dominated council.
But one of the coalition's main groups, the Popular Current, reported on its official Facebook page on Sunday morning that an estimated 56 percent of voters approved the charter, with the count almost complete.
Violence between the charter's supporters and opponents flared in Egypt's two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, in the past 48 hours, with police repelling an Islamist attack on the liberal Wafd party headquarters in Cairo on Saturday night.
According the preliminary results, a majority voted against the charter in the capital, the opposition's bastion.
If the constitution is approved, Morsi hopes it will end a tumultuous transition almost two years after a popular uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak, ushering in interim military rule and then Morsi's election in June.
But the lead-up to the referendum, staggered over two rounds to ensure there were enough judicial officials to monitor the voting after many judges boycotted the vote, has left the country deeply divided.
Liberals and Christians had boycotted the assembly drafting the charter, complaining that the Islamist-dominated assembly ignored their concerns.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its Freedom and Justice Party threw its formidable organisational machine behind a "yes" campaign for the draft constitution.
The proposed charter "offers rights and stability," said one Cairo voter who backed it, Kassem Abdallah, on Saturday.
But many opposition voters were especially hostile towards the Brotherhood, which the National Salvation Front believes wants to usher in strict Islamic sharia laws.
Sally Rafid, a 28-year-old Christian voter, said: "There are many things in the constitution people don't agree on, and it's not just the articles on religion." International watchdogs, the UN human rights chief, the United States and the European Union have all expressed reservations about the draft because of loopholes that could be used to weaken human rights.
Analysts said it was likely -- but not certain -- that the draft constitution would be adopted.
Whatever the outcome, "lasting damage to the civility of Egyptian politics will be the main outcome of the current path Morsi has set Egypt on," analyst Issandr El Amrani wrote for the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.
"If the 'no' vote wins, the Morsi presidency will have been fully discredited and the pressure for his resignation will only increase," he said. "If 'yes' wins, the protest movement is unlikely to die down, (and) may radicalise." The referendum was made possible only by Morsi's adoption last month of extensive powers that stripped a court of the right to annul the constituent assembly, as many had expected it to do on December 2.
Morsi was forced to rescind his powers after mass protests and clashes outside his palace between his supporters and opponents killed eight people last week and injured hundreds.