Troops out in force amid opponents' claims that document favours Muslim Brotherhood

Egyptians lined up in their thousands on Saturday to vote on a controversial new constitution that has pitted the government and its Islamist supporters against liberal and secular opponents in a bitter struggle over the way ahead for the Arab world's biggest country after the 2011 revolution.

President Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who succeeded the deposed Hosni Mubarak last June, cast his ballot on the new basic law in the Cairo suburb of Heliopolis shortly after the polls opened and was shown on state TV emerging with his finger dipped in ink, a measure to prevent fraud.

Elsewhere in the capital there were long queues outside polling stations, where many supporters of the constitution said they were voting "yes" for the sake of badly needed stability after the unprecedented turmoil of the last two years. Opponents cited concerns about a document "tailor-made" for the brotherhood.

"I am saying yes because what matters to me is security and stability and I support Mohamed Morsi and the brotherhood," said Mohamed Abdel-Al, an Egyptair technician, after voting in his district of Rod el-Farag.

"I am against," volunteered another man, who said he had backed Ahmed Shafiq, the "old regime" candidate narrowly defeated by Morsi in last June's presidential poll. "Why should I vote for something written by the people who have destroyed this country?"

In nearby Shubra, lines formed outside the Tawfiqiya school and there was flurry of excitement when a sleek limousine disgorged the governor of Cairo and a posse of watchful bodyguards who brushed past the waiting Egyptian and foreign TV crews.

Troops and police were out in force to provide security in the 10 provinces, home to 25 million voters, where polling was taking place. The country's 17 other provinces are due to vote next Saturday. Voting was staggered because the referendum was arranged at short notice. Independent Egyptian media reported that initial assessments based on turnout and straw polling pointed to a win for the "no" camp.

Judge Mohamed Abdel Hady, of the Judges Club, said that by mid-afternoon 340 electoral complaints had been received, the independent Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper reported. Many were about the absence of supervising judges and efforts to direct people how to vote.

The opposition National Salvation Front (NSF) expressed "deep concern… over the number of irregularities and violations," warning of a "clear desire for vote-rigging by the Muslim Brotherhood". Shayfeenkum, an independent monitoring group, also reported multiple breaches. But there was no repeat of Friday's violence in Alexandria and no official response to anecdotal complaints circulating on Twitter and Facebook.

The vote on Egypt's fifth constitution in a century follows three weeks of protests and sporadic violence after Morsi, who had pledged to rule for "all Egyptians," adopted sweeping powers bypassing the judiciary and rushing through completion of the draft text in the constituent assembly.

Opponents, including many Muslims, insist that their objections are to his undemocratic and non-consensual behaviour and an ambiguous constitution flawed by what it says or implies about the role of Islam and clerical scholars, the position of the still-powerful army, presidential appointments, rights and other fundamental issues.

Independent Egyptian and foreign observers argue that a divided opposition has seized too gleefully on Morsi's miscalculations and vacillation and now risks raising the stakes with an escalation of the crisis.

Mohamed ElBaradei, co-ordinator of the NSF, warned on Twitter: "Adoption of a divisive draft constitution that violates universal values and freedoms is a sure way to institutionalise instability and turmoil." Khaled Abdulla, a member of the Mosireen collective, called the draft "deeply indefensible".

If passed, the constitution will pave the way for new parliamentary elections early next year. The last national assembly, dominated by the brotherhood and conservative Salafis, was dissolved.

Alarmingly, there is a clear sectarian element to the political tension, with Coptic Christians quick to express their dislike and mistrust of Morsi and the brotherhood. "This is a middle-class area, but go down the road and you will find people who can't read and are being given free cooking oil and rice to vote yes," complained Magid Lotfy, a chemical factory owner in Shubra.

"The constitution is not in the interests of the country and not good for my children and grandchildren," said Rida Mustafa, 63, emerging from a polling station in Abdeen near the sinister-looking headquarters of the interior ministry. "Food prices have gone up since the revolution. The brotherhood project has failed. Morsi is worse than Mubarak."

But Ali, a Muslim Morsi supporter who was planning to vote yes, said he did not understand why Christian representatives had walked out of the constituent assembly "because it gave them and the Jews a lot of rights".

When Morsi attended Friday prayers near his home in al-Tagammu al-Khamis the imam told worshippers that a vote on the constitution did not mean a choice "between heaven or hell", as some preachers have warned.

Amid continuing uncertainty about the future, analysts say a 60% vote is needed to be credible. "I am worried either way," said commentator Said Shehata. "Egypt is experiencing very serious divisions. Whatever happens, this is one of the worst moments we've seen since the revolution. But it will be worse if the constitution does pass."

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[Image via Agence France-Presse]