Egyptians queued to vote on Saturday on a constitution promoted by its Islamist backers as the way out of a prolonged political crisis and rejected by opponents as a recipe for further divisions in the Arab world's biggest nation.
Soldiers joined police to secure the referendum
after deadly protests during the build up. Street brawls erupted again on Friday in Alexandria, Egypt's second city, but voting proceeded quietly there, with no reports of violence elsewhere.
President Mohammed Morsi provoked angry demonstrations when he issued a decree last month expanding his powers and then fast-tracked the draft constitution through an assembly dominated by his Muslim Brotherhood group and its allies. At least eight people were killed in clashes last week outside the presidential palace.
The liberal, secular and Christian opposition says the constitution is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. Morsi's supporters say the charter is needed if progress is to be made towards democracy nearly two years after the fall of military-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak.
"The sheikhs (preachers) told us to say 'yes' and I have read the constitution and I liked it," said Adel Imam, a 53-year-old queuing to vote in a Cairo suburb. "The president's authorities are less than before. He can't be a dictator."
Opposition politician and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on Twitter: "Adoption of (a) divisive draft constitution that violates universal values and freedoms is a sure way to institutionalise instability and turmoil."
"I cannot accept such a constitution which aims to trample the rights of the people. This will take Egypt back. The revelution that ousted Mubarak will go waste," said Mohamed Sabry, a Cairo citizen.
Official results will not be announced until after a second round of voting next Saturday. But partial results and unofficial tallies are likely to emerge soon after the first round, giving an idea of the overall trend.
Egypt has been in turmoil for nearly two years after the fall of strongman Hosni Mubarak.
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