Egyptians Take to Polls to Vote on New Constitution

PHOTO: A woman carrying her daughter vents her frustrations to electoral staff as she and others wait to cast their vote during a referendum on the new Egyptian constitution at a polling station on Dec. 15, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
A woman carrying her daughter vents her frustrations to electoral staff as she and others wait to cast their vote during a referendum on the new Egyptian constitution at a polling station on Dec. 15, 2012 in Cairo, Egypt.

A deeply divided Egypt is voting today on its new constitution, a document that could either help cement the country's journey from dictatorship to democracy or create even greater turmoil.

Rarely has a country confronted such a historic choice while so polarized: Nearly 1,000 people have been injured in violence leading up to today, including in the early hours of Saturday, when political opponents hurled rocks, burned cars, and brandished machetes in Alexandria.

But both sides have made an official decision to vote rather than boycott or fight, and most Egyptians today described a peaceful, large turnout. President Mohammad Morsi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood have tapped into a massive political machine and are likely to have enough voters to approve a constitution they say will bring stability to Egypt.

A loose umbrella of liberal, secular Muslim, and Christian opposition groups have urged voters to reject the constitution, warning it gives Islamists outsize influence on daily life and allows for crackdowns on freedom of speech and women's rights.

Polls across Cairo appeared relatively calm. Local media reported a few irregularities but no widespread fraud or problems. In Alexandria, 1,500 Egyptian women blocked a main road after a judge prevented them from voting because they weren't veiled.

Some polling stations reported that they did not have the judges who are required to oversee the vote. About half of the 9,000 judges boycotted, forcing the government to make a last-minute decision to split voting across two successive Saturdays.

At a polling station in al Zamalak, one of the most anti-Morsi districts of Cairo, many waited for more than three hours to vote. At one point a government minister tried to cut in line, only to be angrily confronted by a voter and eventually pushed back. Otherwise, the crowds remained calm.

Here, in one of the richest areas of the city, opponents of the charter saw a vaguely worded document hastily adopted that could usher more conservative Islam into their society. But more often than not, their criticisms reflected a deep bias not against the text itself, but against Morsi and his allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.

"The people who have put it together are not representative of the country," said Malak Fouad, a consultant in Cairo and an American citizen.

Like many women in Zamalak, she painted the constitution as setting back women's rights.

"Women in this country are very much the breadwinners, from the very poor to the very rich," Fouad said. "And if their rights are not protected, they're just going to be slave earners."

Just a few miles away, a more sparsely attended polling station at the Bathata al Badya school in northern Cairo was filled with a crowd that seemed to be mostly supporters of the document. Each one echoed a single argument: the constitution will bring stability.

"It will put Egypt on the right track," said Nahed Mohamed, who works in the tourism industry. Asked about claims the constitution sets back women's rights, she replied, "I am an Egyptian woman. How would I vote yes if it were against me?"

"I want stability and I want the country to improve for everyone," Mohammad Fati said. "The constitution is good for people like me, who work every day."

Increasingly, Egypt seems divided in two: on one side are mostly secular, mostly liberal protestors who see themselves as the true Egypt; on the other are mostly religious Egyptians who believe they outnumber their political opponents -- they did win the election, after all.

Often, the split falls on religious, cultural, even class lines -- what one Western official here called "Red state, blue state Egypt."

Ask most of the protestors about Morsi, and they accuse him of trying to recreate Iran or Afghanistan and describe his supporters as ignorant. Ask some Muslim Brotherhood members about the opposition, and they describe protestors as latte-sipping English speakers who failed to support the revolution in the first place and now fail to respect a democratically elected president.

Regardless of the outcome, observers fear the protests and violence will help widen a divide that will outlive the current crisis.

"It's inevitable that the two sides will argue. Will it be violent?" asked the Western official. "It's a naturally cohesive country. But there are some signs that that cohesion is weakening."

More than 120,000 soldiers, who have been given the power to arrest, are keeping a close eye on stations that will stay open for 15 hours -- extended by three hours because of high turnout. But in the polling stations visited by ABC News, soldiers did not act like police at all, instead standing passive guard at the entrances and only moving to break up a crowd during a verbal altercation.

More than half of Egypt's 26 million eligible voters are expected to cast ballots today, with the balance voting next Saturday. It's the fourth vote since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime, but comes at an especially fragile economic moment.

Foreign-exchange reserves have dropped significantly and the Egyptian pound has devalued at least 12 percent since 2009. Morsi delayed a much-needed $4.8 billion loan this week after Egyptians reacted to IMF-mandated taxes with fury.

The government and its supporters paint the constitution as a chance to increase investment and stabilize the economy.

"We didn't really mind that much what the content was, as much as we wanted to have the highest element of compromise and consensus within the constitution itself, and have it as swiftly as possible," Gehad El-Haddad, a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, told ABC News. "Having a constitution allows us to have a parliament. Having both allows us to end Egypt's transition. Ending Egypt's transition allows us to address the economy, which is the big deal at the end of the day."