Egyptians began voting on Saturday on a new constitution supported by the ruling Islamists but bitterly contested by a secular-leaning opposition.
Polls opened in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other provinces and are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm in the first round. The rest of the country votes on December 22.
President Mohamed Morsi cast his ballot in a polling station close to his presidential palace in Cairo, state television showed. He made no comment to the media.
Morsi’s determined backing of the charter triggered the power struggle with the opposition, which is backed by judges who accuse the Islamists of overreaching.
Weeks of protests preceded Saturday’s vote, sparking clashes by rival camps in Cairo last week that left eight people dead and hundreds injured.
In Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, AFP correspondents said the situation was calm the day after clashes between hundreds of opponents of the draft charter and Islamists that occurred when a cleric told worshipers at a mosque to support the constitution.
All that was left of the disturbance was graffiti on a nearby wall saying ”no” to the draft constitution.
Egypt’s vote will be staggered over two rounds to ensure there will be enough judges to monitor polling stations amid a rift within the judiciary over the referendum process.
The first round’s unofficial results are expected hours after polling stations close.
Morsi has ordered Egypt’s military to help police maintain security until the results are known. A total of 130,000 police and 120,000 soldiers are being deployed, interior ministry and military officials told AFP.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has organised large rallies and a campaign in favor of the draft constitution.
The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, mulled a boycott before instead urging Egyptians to vote against the charter, which rights groups say limits the freedoms of minorities and women.
In a small queue at a Cairo school serving as a polling station, watched over by police and soldiers, several people said they were voting against the constitution.
“I’m voting because I hate the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s very simple. They are liars,” said one, Abbas Abdelaziz, a 57-year-old accountant.
Ali Mohammed Ali, an unemployed 65-year-old wearing a traditional long robe, said: “I voted for Morsi and it was a mistake, a big mistake. This constitution is bad, especially because it doesn’t forbid child labor and opens the way for the marriage of minors.”
Nagat Radi, a veiled woman in her 50s, said many articles in the draft constitution were problematic “and will hurt our country and our children.”
She added: “The people are going in one direction and the Brothers in another. Those voting ‘yes’ believe it is a gesture of piety and obedience to the president.”
Others were in favor of the proposed charter. Enayat Sayyed Mostafa, a retired woman, said: “I’m voting for stability and for Dr Morsi’s promised program of renewal. I have gone over the text to compare it with what the opposition is saying, and what they say is false. It’s a good constitution.”
The referendum was only made possible after Morsi assumed sweeping powers that stripped courts of the right to annul the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly that drafted the charter.
Morsi was forced to rescind his powers after mass protests outside his palace in northern Cairo led to the worst violence between the opposition and Islamists since his election in June.
International watchdogs, including the UN human rights chief, the United States and European Union, have expressed reservations about the draft because of loopholes that could be used to weaken human rights, including those of women, and the independence of the judiciary.
Analysts said the proven ability of the Muslim Brotherhood movement to muster voters was likely — but not certain — to ensure that the draft constitution is passed.