Clashes erupt as polarised Egypt braces for divisive referendum



Cairo: On the eve of a crucial referendum in Egypt over a contentious draft constitution, Islamists backing President Muhammed Mursi and the secular opposition held rival rallies and clashed while making last-ditch efforts to swing the vote in their favour.

Nearly 51 million voters will participate in the two-stage vote over the Islamist draft constitution that may seal the fate of the deeply polarised nation.

Clashes erupted between opponents and supporters of the referendum on the draft constitution outside Al-Qaed Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria after the Friday prayers in which the preacher expressed support for the constitution. The clashes broke out with demonstrators on both sides throwing stones and deteriorated to street fights leaving 17 injured. Hundreds of anti-constitution protesters had gathered earlier outside the mosque.

'The people want to bring down the regime', 'Down with the rule of the supreme guide', chanted protesters referring to Brotherhood leader Mohamed Badie.

"The Constituent Assembly is void, and the constitution is sectarian," read the banners as protesters distributed leaflets that rejected the constitution draft, saying such a constitution after the revolution was a "disaster."

Alexandria is among the 10 governorates, where the first stage of public vote will take place tomorrow. The other are Cairo, Daqahlia, Sharqiya, Assiut, Sohag, Aswan, Gharbiya, North Sinai and South Sinai, state-run MENA news agency said.

While the second stage, to take place on December 22, will be held in the remaining 17 governorates. The National Salvation Front of opposition groups organised demonstrations at the presidential palace and in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square today, after deciding to call on followers to vote "no" in the referendum, rather than a boycott.

In Tahrir Square, protesters chanted, "Oh martyr we swear by your blood, another revolution anew," and "The people demand the fall of the regime".

The opposition fear the draft constitution "gives too much emphasis on Islamic law ... They would like to see more emphasis given on rights and freedoms". In particular, those planning to vote against the draft constitution want additional rights for workers and women.

Pro-Mursi groups also lined up on the main roads in Cairo, holding placards that say "Yes to the constitution." Also, thousands of people gathered at the Rabaa Al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo's Nasr City in support of Mursi and the draft constitution.

Meanwhile, Egypt's Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei has pleaded to Mursi to delay the upcoming vote to avoid the "specter of civil war."

"Fear God, Dr Mursi and postpone the referendum," ElBaradei told the Islamist leader in a televised message yesterday.

Egypt's Constituent Assembly on November 30 in a marathon session approved the draft constitution imposing Islamic values, a move opposed by Liberals as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech and religion in the country. According to Egyptian state TV, the articles passed, stipulated that Islam is the religion of the state, and the principles of Sharia, or Islamic law, are the "main source of legislation".

Mursi then decided to hold a referendum on the controversial draft constitution on December 15, a move that sparked further outrage in the country.

This week, Egyptian Central Elections Commission announced that the vote, initially set only for December 15, will take place both tomorrow and a week later on December 22. Each round will cover a different region.

Egyptians abroad, had already begun voting in the referendum on the new constitution. Voting was taking place at Egyptian embassies abroad, with more than 500,000 Egyptians expected to cast their votes in 150 countries.

The present political turmoil began after President Mursi granted himself absolute powers through a November 22 decree that had put his decisions beyond judicial review, a move which gained him titles like "dictator" and "Pharaoh".

Mursi tried to calm protests by annulling the decree, but decided to go ahead with the referendum. Mursi has also issued a new decree giving police powers to the army to beef up security ahead of tomorrow's referendum.

Rival mass rallies held by both supporters and opponents of Mursi have become almost a daily occurrence in Cairo. Clashes between the two groups killed at least seven people and injured hundreds more last week. The crisis has necessitated a ramping up of security around the presidential palace, which has been the focal point of anti-Mursi protests.

PTI