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Divided Egypt begins voting on constitution

| Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, 8:37 p.m.
Injured men take shelter during clashes between supporters and opponents of President Mohammed Morsi in Alexandria, Egypt, Friday, Dec. 14, 2012, a day before the referendum on the constitution. Opposing sides in Egypt's political crisis were staging rival rallies on Friday, the final day before voting starts on a contentious draft constitution that has plunged the country into turmoil and deeply divided the nation.(AP Photo/Ahmed Ramadan)

CAIRO – After more than three chaotic weeks of protests, 10 deaths and hundreds of injuries, Egyptians begin voting on Saturday on a post-revolution constitution.

The document drafted by the two leading Islamist parties — and President Mohamed Morsy's decree of unlimited power — have deeply divided the country.

Opposing sides are flooding television and social-media with competing messages.

“The environment should have been a peaceful one … conducive to reflection,” said Tarek Masoud, a Harvard University political-science professor and Middle East specialist.

Instead, Egyptians are voting less on a constitution than on “which side do they want to back in this conflict,” he said.

The vote will occur in two rounds, ending Dec. 22.

“I am going to say ‘no.' I don't like what is happening in the country,” said Ahmed El Sayed, 26, a pharmacist. “The Islamists are trying to turn this country into an Islamic state, like Saudi Arabia. It can't be like that here.”

He expects the unrest to continue, regardless of the referendum's outcome.

At a mostly male rally on Friday, Islamists waved Eyptian, Saudi, Muslim Brotherhood and black jihadi flags. Khaled Abdel Tawab, 31, said he turned out to support a constitution that would impose Islamic law on Egyptians.

Science teacher Baqih Agami insisted the proposed constitution would “open the door for greater personal freedoms” and bring stability.

University student Mohamed Shabon, 26, held up a sign – “I am not Brotherhood and I support the constitution” — and accused the Brotherhood's opposition and supporters of the ousted Mubarak regime of “trying to create chaos.”

Nearby, a now-familiar Islamist message was scrawled on a wall: “The people want the cleansing of the media.”

Tanks remained outside the presidential palace — the scene of deadly violence last week — along with anti-Morsy protesters.

An overhead banner denounced the Islamist-based Brotherhood; wall graffiti condemned Morsy as “a terrorist” and Brotherhood followers as “sheep.”

Abdelrahman Said, 60, plans to vote against the proposal. “It's not safe for the country, and it is made by Morsy for his own group,” he said.

Kareem Adel, 27, selling music cassettes and CDs near the palace, pointed to an anti-constitution wall poster that echoed his sentiment. “The Muslim Brotherhood wants to run the country and they come with weapons here,” he said.

“The smart money still has to be on the referendum passing,” said Harvard's Masoud. He predicted “considerable instability and possibly violence” afterward.

“Morsy really needs to think like the president of Egypt and not an Islamist and bring these two sides together,” he said.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review's foreign correspondent. Email her at bhiel@tribweb.com.

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