CAIRO ‚?? Egyptians took their quarrel over a draft constitution to polling stations Saturday after weeks of violent turmoil between the newly empowered Islamists and the mostly liberal opposition over the future identity of the nation.
Regardless of the outcome, the heated arguments among voters standing in line signaled that the referendum over the contentious charter is unlikely to end Egypt‚??s worst political crisis since the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
The voting capped a nearly two-year struggle over the post-Mubarak identity of Egypt, with the latest crisis over the charter evolving into a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under President Mohammed Morsi‚??s Muslim Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.
Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed to help the police protect polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi‚??s supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded. The large-scale deployment did not stop a mob of supporters of ultraconservative cleric Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail attacking the Cairo offices of the liberal Wafd party, a member of an opposition alliance that has campaigned against the draft constitution.
‚??Today I would like to offer my condolences to the Egyptian people on the collapse of the rule of law,‚?Ě Wafd leader El-Sayyed el-Badawi said.
The opposition called for a ‚??no‚?Ě vote, while Morsi‚??s supporters said the constitution will help end the political instability that has roiled Egypt since the autocratic Mubarak was overthrown. Clerics, from the pulpits of mosques, have defended the constitution as a document that champions Islam.
The draft would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, or Islamic law, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter‚??s drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.
For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter‚??s parliamentary elections. Morsi rejected opposition demands that he cancel the referendum.