Polling stations opened on Saturday morning in a referendum on Egypt's new constitution, which was shaped by Islamist allies of Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi. Morsi's liberal rivals say the draft constitution deepens divisions in the nation.
Voters were allowed to cast "yes" or "no" ballots from 8 A.M. until 7 P.M., but the deadline could be extended depending on turnout. The vote has been split into two rounds, each covering different regions with the second next week, because not enough judges agreed to oversee the ballot.
Egypt's draft constitution is made up of an introduction, an 11-part preamble and 236 articles. Critics have raised concerns over issues including Islamic law and women's rights.
Television images showed some queues in Cairo and elsewhere as polling stations opened on Saturday morning.
Highlights of Egypt's draft constitution
Shariah (Islamic) law
Like a previous constitution, the draft states, "Principles of Islamic Shariah are the principal source of legislation." The draft adds, "The principles of Islamic Sharia include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources" which critics say opens the door for legislation allowing imposition of strict Islamic law. Countering that is a vague article that reads, "Freedom of belief is an inviolable right. The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions, as regulated by law."
Role of clerics
The draft gives Islamic clerics unprecedented powers in this article: "Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law," referring to the most respected center of scholarship and rulings in Sunni Islam.
The draft mentions women in the framework of the traditional Muslim family, adding, "The state shall ensure maternal and child health services free of charge, and enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work." Critics charge the draft fails to protect women from discrimination, but the preamble states, "Equality and equal opportunities are established for all citizens, men and women, without discrimination or nepotism or preferential treatment, in both rights and duties."
The draft contains language referring to public morals and values, implying that Islamic law would be the determining factor. An article forbids limiting the basic rights of individuals but adds that they "must be practiced in a manner not conflicting with" principles of religious law. There is also a ban on insulting "religious messengers and prophets," opening the door to arrests of bloggers and other activists.
Independent publications closed for a day to protest the lack of an article banning arrest of journalists for what they write. The draft has this: "Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed. The media shall be free and independent."
The draft guarantees the practices of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, raising concerns of persecution of smaller sects. It also allows religious practices on condition that they do not "violate public order."
The president is the head of the national security council, but the defense minister is the commander in chief of the armed forces and "appointed from among its officers." That ensures the military an independent position. Control of the military budget is not mentioned.
Basic facts and figures on the vote:
• There are two rounds of voting - the first on Saturday and the second on December 22.
• The ballot paper has two options: "agree" or "don't agree."
• More than 26 million people in 10 of Egypt's 27 provinces are eligible to vote. Saturday's voting includes Egypt's most populated cities, Cairo and Alexandria, which together account for nearly nine million voters. Also voting will be Nile Delta provinces in which both Islamists - who have urged the passage of the referendum - and former backers of Mubarak's toppled regime - likely to oppose it, along with liberals, secularists, Christians, and others - have support networks.
• More than 25 million Egyptians in the remaining 17 other provinces, including Cairo's twin city of Giza and provinces in both the Delta and the south, will vote in the second round.
• Authorities say 7,000 judges are to oversee 6,000 polling stations in the first round. Ballot counting takes place inside the stations just after the closure of polls.
• The main international group that monitored previous Egyptian votes, the Carter Center, will not deploy observers this time around. Local monitoring groups have protested new regulations that require they receive permits from the state-run National Council for Human Rights, instead of obtaining permits directly from the Election Committee as they have in the past.
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