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Egypt votes on its constitution: What's at stake and what does it mean for the future?

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A man holds up a Quran as supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood chant slogans during a rally on Friday in Cairo, Egypt.

News analysis

CAIRO -- On Saturday, millions of Egyptians are expected to vote in the first round of a national referendum to determine whether the country adapts a new and controversial constitution.

The voting will take place over two days, Dec. 15 and Dec. 22. Ten out of the country's 27 governorates, comprising 26 million voters, will be allowed to vote on Saturday. The remaining 17 governorates and their 25 million voters will be allowed to vote the following Saturday.

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Seven thousand judges will supervise the more than 6,000 polling stations on each voting day. The government was required to split the voting over two days because thousands of other judges boycotted supervising the referendum. Officials say voting will also be supervised by observers from civil society, human rights organizations and foreign and domestic media. The U.S.-based Carter Center, however, says it was not able to send an observer to witness the voting process because the regulations required by the Egyptian government were not clarified ahead of the vote. 

Why does the referendum matter to Egypt, the region and the world?
If approved, the referendum would pave the way for a new social contract between the Egyptian state and its citizens. It would replace Egypt's 1971 constitution that had been amended by previous Egyptian presidents to bolster the authoritarian rule that devastated citizens' individual rights.

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Some, however, say the draft constitution changes nothing to curb the powers of the state, and instead opens the door for Shariah law to be strictly imposed. Others say this constitution is groundbreaking because it curbs the powers of the president, limiting his time in office to two terms and upholding the spirit of the 2011 revolution.

Egypt is the largest country in the Arab world, with a population of more than 80 million and great clout over the region. At the same time, Egypt is a vital U.S. ally. The Suez Canal, one of the world's most strategic waterways that connects Asia and East Africa to Europe, lies in Egypt, a country that is also essential to regional stability and is one of only two Arab countries that has a peace treaty with Israel. 

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin is outside the presidential palace in Cairo where hundreds of thousands are protesting what they say is an unjust constitution. They want to delay a vote on the current draft of the constitution now scheduled for December 15. 

Here's what is at stake in the referendum and what Egypt's draft constitution says about some of the most pressing issues facing the country:

On Islamic law and the role of religion
Egypt's draft constitution states that Islam is the official religion of the state. Supporters of the constitution say the draft allows for the freedom of religion. Article 43 states: "The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions."

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Supporters also argue that for the first time, cannons for Christians and Jews will serve as the principals for their personal laws. Opponents of the constitution say the document curbs the rights of religious minorities, including believers of non-monotheistic religions, because it states that the "principles of Shariah Law are the principal source of legislation."

The constitution then proceeds to narrowly define Shariah law as the exclusive interpretation of religious scholars belonging to Al Azhar University, the center of religious and academic learning for Sunnis in the Islamic world. Opponents are also worried about excerpts such as Article 11, which states: "The State shall safeguard ethics, public morality and public order and foster a high level of education and of religious and patriotic values." Critics say that opens the door for a religious take over of civil society and social affairs. 

On the role of the military
The proposed constitution has not changed much in terms of the military's role and function in society. The constitution preserves the role of the Minister of Defense as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and maintains that the position be filled from within the institution's officer ranks.

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As such, Egypt's military is headed by a military officer, rather than a civilian. Critics warn this will allow the military to remain powerful and shielded from civilian oversight. The president is the supreme commander of the armed forces, but he heads the National Defense Council. The military's budget remains a state secret and there are no stipulations to force the military to disclose its vast economic empire. Perhaps most troubling, critics say, is that the military would still be allowed to try civilians in military trials. 

On the role of the president
Unlike previous presidents who served for decades at a time, Article 133 in the proposed constitution stipulates that the president will serve for a four-year term with a limit of two terms. Critics contend the new draft constitution preserves "dictatorial powers" for the president, including the ability to appoint judges.

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The president is also not required by the constitution to appoint a vice-president, which makes the issue of succession somewhat vague. The new draft also prohibits the president from holding any "partisan position" for the duration of the presidency, which supporters say means that once an individual is elected, he must resign from any political party they belonged to.

On women
In the preamble, the draft constitution states that, "equality and equal opportunities are established for all citizens, men and women, without discrimination or nepotism or preferential treatment, in both rights and duties." Supporters of the constitution say the draft gives women new benefits, including support from the state for "widows and breadwinners" and will "ensure maternal and child health services free of charge."

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Critics, however, contend that women's rights are too narrowly defined within the framework of religion and family affairs. They also argue that the strict interpretation of Islamic law could pave the way for limiting the rights of women. 

Other issues stipulated in the draft constitution have also polarized the country, including articles that deal with the freedoms of speech, association and the media.

Supporters and opponents of the constitution have launched massive public awareness campaigns to persuade voters, but come Saturday, it will be the people who will have the final say. 

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