Tension high as Egypt votes for Constitution

Tension high as Egypt votes for Constitution

Tension high as Egypt votes for Constitution

Egyptian protesters shout slogans in front of burning cars set on fire during a demonstration calling for a ‘No’ vote in a referendum on a disputed draft constitution in the coastal city of Alexandria. AFP photo

As Egyptians are set to vote Dec. 15 in the first round of a referendum on a controversial draft Constitution, tension is likely to remain high between the opposition and supporters of President Mohammad Morsi.

In the referendum, Egyptians can either accept or reject a basic law that must be in place before national elections can be held early next year, an event many hope can steer the country toward stability. The referendum is scheduled to be held over two successive Saturdays as there are not enough judges willing to monitor all polling stations. Voting is set to begin Dec. 15 in Cairo, Alexandria and in eight other provinces. A week later, the other half of the country will vote.

Tensions have been running high over the referendum after weeks of protests and violence in Cairo between the rival camps that killed eight people and injured hundreds last week.

Clashes with swords

A day before the referendum, clashes broke out between Islamists and opposition protesters in the Egyptian city of Alexandria on Dec. 14. Stones were thrown as dozens of activists fought with clubs and swords, witnesses said, and a number of cars were set alight on the streets of Egypt’s second biggest city on the eve of a vote that Morsi hopes will bring an end to the country’s worsening political crisis.

Scuffles started near a mosque in Alexandria when opposition members handing out flyers clashed with Morsi supporters. In Cairo, flag-waving pro-Morsi Islamists staged a final rally on Dec. 14, but the gathering outside one of the capital’s main mosques was peaceful. Egypt’s army has temporarily been given police powers to help ensure security until the final results of the referendum are known. A total of 120,000 soldiers will be supporting the 130,000 police deployed.

Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and ultra-orthodox Salafi groups backing the draft charter have been campaigning for days for Egypt’s 51 million voters to approve it. On the contrary, the opposition, which initially wanted the referendum postponed, only began campaigning for a “no” vote on Dec. 13. Analysts said the proven ability of the Muslim Brotherhood to promote voter turnout meant it was likely – but not certain – that the draft Constitution would pass.

If adopted, “it will exacerbate political tension and result in more acrimony,” Hani Sabra, an Egypt specialist for the Eurasia Group, said in an evaluation note. The opposition says the Constitution is poorly crafted in a way that could possibly usher in Sharia-style strict Islamic law, and has denounced the way the referendum has been pushed through without consensus. Many of Egypt’s judges have said they will not oversee the vote, as is required under the law to ensure its legitimacy.

The draft has pitted Egypt’s Islamists against the country’s liberals, minorities such as Christians and a large sector of moderate Muslims. Liberal and secular activists claim that it opens the door to rights abuses and Islamist domination.