CAIRO – Egyptians took their battle over a draft constitution to polling stations Saturday after weeks of violent turmoil between the newly empowered Islamists and the mostly liberal opposition over the future identity of the nation.
Regardless of the outcome, the heated arguments among voters standing in line signaled that the referendum over the contentious charter is unlikely to end Egypt’s worst political crisis since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
Saturday’s voting capped a nearly two-year struggle over the post-Mubarak identity of Egypt, with the latest crisis over the charter evolving into a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under Islamist President Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.
Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed Saturday to join the police in the protection of polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.
The opposition has called on its supporters to vote no, while Morsi’s supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has roiled Egypt since the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown. Clerics, from the pulpits of mosques, say the constitution is a document that champions Islam.
The draft would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Sharia, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter’s drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.
According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style religious police to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft – regardless of what laws on the books say.
For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter’s parliamentary elections. Morsi, who hails from the Brotherhood, has rejected opposition demands that he cancel the referendum.
When voting day finally arrived, the anger and frustration of the past three weeks had not gone away and scenes of voters hotly debating the cons and pros of the constitution or countering each other’s take on Morsi, the Brotherhood, the Salafis or reform leader Mohamed ElBaradei were common.