AFP (Cairo) – Islamists backing a new constitution for Egypt claimed victory on Sunday in an initial phase of a referendum, but the opposition alleged polling violations and said it would await the final results in a week’s time.
The two sides’ positions drew out the deep uncertainty and division seen in Egypt over the past three weeks, a period marked by mass protests and deadly clashes.
A small majority of 56.5 percent voted for the draft charter put to half of Egypt’s 51 million voters on Saturday, according to the Freedom and Justice Party, the political branch of President Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Egyptian media reported roughly the same figure, which fell short of the landslide the Brotherhood had been hoping for to quiet the restive opposition.
But the opposition National Salvation Front coalition said in a statement that it “will not recognise any unofficial result,” and will wait for the formal tally after next Saturday’s second round of voting.
It reiterated an allegation that the balloting had been “marred by irregularities and violations,” but the statement did not repeat the Front’s overnight assertion that two-thirds of voters had rejected the draft charter.
The head of the Front, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former chief of the UN nuclear energy agency, tweeted of the first round: “Country split, flagrant irregularities, low turnout, disillusion w(ith) Islamists on the rise. Illiteracy remains a hurdle.”
Violence between the charter’s supporters and opponents flared in Egypt’s two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, before and after the referendum, with police repelling an Islamist attack on the liberal Wafd party headquarters in the capital on Saturday night.
On December 5, clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi protesters outside the presidential palace killed eight people injured hundreds, prompting the army to deploy troops and tanks around the compound.
If the constitution is approved, Morsi hopes it will end a tumultuous transition almost two years after a popular uprising overthrew president Hosni Mubarak and ushered in interim military rule before Morsi’s election in June.
Liberals and Christians had boycotted the assembly that drafted the charter, complaining that the Islamist-dominated panel ignored their concerns.
The 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 Kassem Abdallah, one Cairo voter who backed it on Saturday.
But many opposition voters were especially hostile towards the Brotherhood, which the National Salvation Front believes wants to usher in strict Islamic 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.
Hisham Kassem, an Egyptian analyst based in Cairo, told AFP that the Muslim Brotherhood used “intimidation” to bolster the “yes” vote.
Kassem predicted that if the new charter is adopted, that “is likely to take the country into some sort of paralysis or civil disobedience.”
A “serious crisis” would also be likely to ensue for Egypt’s already embattled economy, he added.