Egypt constitution: First round of referendum ends

Lyse Doucet reports on the long queues at Egyptian polling stations

Voting has closed in Egypt in the first leg of a referendum on a controversial new constitution, after a high turnout.

President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood have endorsed the document, but critics say it is poorly drafted and overly favours Islamists.

The opposition National Salvation Front coalition has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of trying to rig the vote.

The headquarters of the opposition al-Wafd party has been attacked, reportedly by extremist Islamists.

Two people are said to have been hurt during the attack in Cairo.

In other violence, a man was shot and injured in a clash between rival groups outside a polling station in the city of Dakahlia while, across Egypt, 18 people were treated for exhaustion.

However, the ballot, which is staggered over Saturday and a second day of voting in a week's time, appears to have gone smoothly overall.

At the scene

Most observers believe that, whatever the strength of feeling on each side of the argument, the Muslim Brotherhood is better organised, and so more likely to win.

One unknown factor is the view of harder-line Islamists, such as the Salafists, who may possibly vote "No" because they believe the constitution does not contain a strong enough commitment to Islamic values.

What seems most likely is that this referendum will not end this debate, a fundamental argument over Egypt's future, particularly if the outcome is as close as many expect.

Egyptians have got used to expressing their feelings about their country, in the strongest possible manner, and they are not about to stop.

Saturday's ballot took place in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other provinces, a week before the rest of the country. Voting was extended to 23:00 (21:00 GMT) because of the high turnout.

Some 250,000 security personnel have been deployed to safeguard a referendum in which more than 51 million people are registered to vote.

Polling reportedly had to be spread out because few judges were willing to supervise the referendum.

Human rights groups have expressed fears the results from the first round could sway the opinion of those voting in the second.

A constitution must be in place before elections can be held early next year.

Mr Morsi was elected president in June with just over half of the vote, more than a year after Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in a popular revolt in Egypt, the most populous country in the Arab world.

'Wrong for Egypt'

The simple ballot paper asks if Egyptians support or oppose the new constitution. Backers include President Morsi, who voted near the presidential palace in the Cairo district of Heliopolis, the Muslim Brotherhood and most other Islamists.

Constitution at a glance

  • Sharia remains the main source of legislation
  • Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's leading authority, to be consulted on "matters related to Sharia"
  • Christianity and Judaism to be the main source of legislation for Christians and Jews
  • Religious freedom to be limited to Muslims, Christians and Jews
  • Limits president to two four-year terms of office

Opponents include liberals and others who want a more secular future for Egypt. Some of them say the new constitution would take away some of the new freedoms hard won in last year's revolution.

Voters interviewed by Reuters news agency in Cairo were hopeful the vote would bring some calm to Egypt.

"I see this as a positive step for the country... a good base that we can start to work from," said one, Ahmed Gindy.

In the northern port city of Alexandria, where there were clashes on Friday between rival activists fighting with clubs, stones and other weapons, Mohamed Ewais explained why he was voting "No".

"I cannot accept a constitution with very limited... rights for minorities, rights for women, rights for even children," he told the Associated Press news agency.

BBC Arabic reporters covering the referendum from outside Cairo say the situation was calm amid a high turnout

  • In Alexandria, long queues formed at polling stations and voters complained about the waiting time
  • In Mahalla, a city in the Delta that has seen big anti-Morsi demonstrations, polling stations were heaving with people, with heated political discussions outside the voting booths
  • In Assiut, Upper Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood is popular, there was tight security from the police and military, including tanks guarding some polling stations

President Morsi casts his vote in Cairo

The violence in Alexandria reportedly broke out after a cleric at a mosque urged worshippers to vote "Yes".

It continued late into the evening, with police firing tear gas, and at least 15 people injured in the fighting.

Supporters of the draft constitution have accused the opposition of sowing "lies and discord" about the referendum.

The opposition National Salvation Front had vehemently opposed the referendum but this week said its supporters should go to the ballot boxes to vote "No".

In a statement on Saturday, it expressed "deep concern... over the number of irregularities and violations in the holding of the referendum".

This, it alleged, pointed to a "clear desire for vote-rigging by the Muslim Brotherhood".

However, the Egyptian army's chief of staff, Gen Sedky Sobhi, told the BBC he was satisfied with the situation inside and outside polling stations.

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