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Divided Egyptians head to polls to vote on constitution

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 11:19 p.m.
Egyptian women line up outside a polling station to cast their votes during a referendum on a disputed constitution drafted by Islamist supporters of President Morsi in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012.(AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

CAIRO — Amid cries of electoral violations, politically polarized Egyptians voted to agree or disagree to a controversial constitution on Saturday.

Voting was extended to 11 p.m. as long lines snaked around neighborhood polling stations.

“It is the worst organization ever,” said Ghada Shahbandar, a board member of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and an election monitor.

“There is a lot of intimidation, and not like in the past where the intimidation came from the government and police. Now it is citizen to citizen, supporter versus opponent,” she said.

The voting in roughly half the country will be followed by a second round on Saturday.

Egypt has been bitterly divided for more than three weeks since President Mohamed Morsy claimed near-dictatorial power and Islamists rushed ahead with a constitutional referendum.

Opponents of Morsy and his Islamic-based Muslim Brotherhood say the proposed constitution will curb individual liberties and impose Islamic rule on Egypt, the Arab world's largest and most influential nation and a pivotal U.S. ally in the region for three decades.

Rival camps have fought bloody street battles that, at one point, forced Morsy to flee the presidential palace.

Many Egyptians who voted for the constitution cited stability as their motive; those voting against it dismissed that argument.

Women appeared to vote in large numbers, and many of them said the constitution would not protect their rights.

Suzanne Abdelwares, 55, said she believes the document neglects education, health care and equality for women.

“I'm a Muslim, but I don't want an Islamic state,” she said after voting in the middle-class neighborhood of Shubra.

Hamad Diwany, 49, who sells car parts, said Egypt “is going in the direction of the Islamists, and we reject that.”

In a working-class section of the capital, shoemaker Ahmed Abdelaziz voted for the constitution, hoping that it will restore stability.

“We are tired, and we want to work,” he said.

At the same polling station, carpenter Ahmed Ahmed, 64, who voted for the Brotherhood in last year's election that gave Islamists parliamentary control, voted against their constitution.

“The Muslim Brotherhood changed, and they brought chaos and divided the country,” he said. “We will never have stability with the Muslim Brotherhood because they are liars.”

Sara Ali, 20, wearing the head scarf of a devout Muslim woman, said the Brotherhood “is trying to convince people that they know what Islam is, but that is not what Islam is.” She, too, voted no.

Jehan Zaki Armeen, 47, said the Brotherhood is trying to impose Shariah, or Islamic law, “according to their understanding. That is the problem.”

Ahmed Lutfi, 40, an education ministry worker, said he read the constitution and voted for it in order “to move forward. … Morsy can be removed after four years.”

In one crowded, Muslim-dominated neighborhood of Cairo, people in long lines jostled to vote. Religious teacher Zeinab Ashour, 45, wearing the black gown and face veil of a conservative Muslim, voted yes “to move Egypt forward and for stability, God willing.”

Ceramics worker Eid Azzedine Hassan, 50, said the proposal “takes us back to the previous regime” of President Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed in 2011.

Shahbandar, the rights activist and election monitor, accused election supervisors of harassing the constitution's opponents — Christian women were blocked at polls in Heliopolis, an upscale neighborhood that supported liberal candidates in previous parliamentary elections, she said.

“We have entire voting stations in more urban areas of Egypt, particularly in quarters of Cairo and Alexandria, where people are more affluent and better educated, and (the Brotherhood is) stalling the process,” she said.

With most judges refusing to oversee the election in opposition to Morsy's power grab, many polling locations handled quadruple the normal turnout, complicating the process.

Although violence seemed minimal, the liberal Wafd Party's headquarters was attacked. Witnesses blamed ultra-Islamist Salafis.

Shahbandar said Islamists “were tried unjustly by the previous regime” but are “quickly losing the respect … and the vote of the people” because of heavy-handed political tactics.

She predicts a “drawn-out, violent process, and that is the sad part.”

Betsy Hiel is the foreigncorrespondent for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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