Mahmoud Khaled / AFP - Getty Images
An Egyptian man holds a portrait of Egypt's Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi outside a polling station during the vote on a new constitution on Tuesday in Giza, Cairo.
CAIRO – A referendum on a new constitution laid bare the sharp divisions in Egypt six months after the military removed the elected Islamist president. Pro-army voters lined up Tuesday outside polling stations, singing patriotic songs, kissing images of Egypt's top officer and sharing their upbeat hopes for their troubled nation.
Despite heavy security, 11 people were killed in sporadic violence, with protesters burning tires and pelting police with rocks and firebombs to create just enough danger to keep many voters at home.
The two-day balloting will likely pave the way for a possible presidential run by the nation's top general after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi last July, setting off a fierce crackdown on Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
It's also a key milestone in a military-backed political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the coup, which has left Egypt sharply divided between Brotherhood supporters in one camp, and the military, security forces in the other, as well as a large segment of a population exacerbated by three years of turmoil.
Amid a climate of fear and paranoia, authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant segment of the population are showing little or no tolerance for dissent. Campaigning for a "no" vote risked arrest by the police and Egyptians who have publicized their opposition to the charter, even just parts of it, are quickly labeled as traitors.
Some 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen fanned out across the nation of some 90 million people to protect polling stations and voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to Morsi. Cars were prevented from parking or driving by polling stations and women were searched by female police officers. Military helicopters hovered over Cairo and other major cities.
Shortly before polls opened, an explosion struck a Cairo courthouse, damaging its facade and shattering windows in nearby buildings but causing no casualties in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba — a Brotherhood stronghold.
The Health Ministry said 11 people died and 28 were wounded in clashes that broke out between Morsi supporters and government security forces on the sidelines of voting in Cairo, the adjacent province of Giza and two provinces south of the capital, Bani Suef and Sohag.
Four of those were killed when gunfire broke out between police and gunmen on rooftops in Sohag, according to security officials. Three others were wounded, including a senior police officer.
A Morsi supporter also was shot to death as he and about 100 others tried to storm a polling station in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. It was not clear who was behind the shooting.
In Cairo's working class district of Nahya, pro-Morsi protesters shot at and pelted with rocks a polling station before closing all entrances with chains, scaring away voters and locking election officials inside, Mohammed Seragedeen, the judge in charge of the station, said.
Security forces later fired tear gas to disperse the protesters and allow voting to resume, he said.
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others widely considered the freest ever seen in Egypt, including the June 2012 balloting won by Morsi. But this vote was tainted by criticism that many of the freedoms won in the anti-Mubarak revolution have vanished amid a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that has spread to others as the military-backed administration tries to suppress all dissent.
The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals.
The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.
The current government is looking for a bigger "yes" majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to run for president this year. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation's highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.