Egypt faces divisive choice over political future

Fri Dec 14, 2012 5:39pm EST
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By Yasmine Saleh and Giles Elgood

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egyptians decide on Saturday on a constitution promoted by its Islamist backers as the way out of a prolonged political crisis and rejected by opponents as a recipe for further divisions in the Arab world's biggest nation.

Voting begins in a referendum on a divisive draft basic law that has pitted Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Mursi against a liberal, secular and Christian opposition in often bloody clashes in Cairo and other cities.

The opposition says the constitution is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. Mursi's supporters say the charter is needed if progress is to be made towards democracy nearly two years after the fall of military strongman Hosni Mubarak.

In Alexandria on Friday, tensions boiled over into a street brawl between rival factions armed with clubs, knives and swords. Several cars were set on fire and a Muslim preacher who had urged people to vote "yes" to the constitution was trapped inside his mosque by angry opposition supporters.

In the capital, Cairo, both sides made low-key final efforts to rally supporters.

Flag-waving Islamists gathered peacefully at one of the main mosques, some shouting "Islam, Islam" and "We've come here to say 'yes' to the constitution".

Opposition supporters - who have been urged to vote "no" by their leaders - assembled outside the presidential palace.

The building remains ringed with police, soldiers and tanks after street clashes caused at least eight deaths earlier this month in violence prompted by Mursi's decision to award himself sweeping powers in order to ram through the new charter.   Continued...

Supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and members of the Muslim Brotherhood chant pro-Mursi slogans while holding up a poster with a crossed out picture of ousted President Hosni Mubarak (R) and current President Mohamed Mursi during a rally in Rabaa El Adaweya Mosque square in Cairo December 14, 2012. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh