, CAIRO, Dec 15 – Egyptians began voting on Saturday on a new constitution supported by the ruling Islamists but bitterly contested by a secular-leaning opposition.
Polls opened in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other provinces and are scheduled to close at 7pm in the first round. The rest of the country votes on December 22.
President Mohamed Morsi cast his ballot in a polling station close to his presidential palace in Cairo, state television showed. He made no comment to the media.
Morsi’s determined backing of the charter triggered the power struggle with the opposition, which is backed by judges who accuse the Islamists of overreaching.
Weeks of protests preceded Saturday’s vote, sparking clashes by rival camps in Cairo last week that left eight people dead and hundreds injured.
In Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city, AFP correspondents said the situation was calm the day after clashes between hundreds of opponents of the draft charter and Islamists that occurred when a cleric told worshippers at a mosque to support the constitution.
All that was left of the disturbance was graffiti on a nearby wall saying “no” to the draft constitution.
Egypt’s vote will be staggered over two rounds to ensure there will be enough judges to monitor polling stations amid a rift within the judiciary over the referendum process.
The first round’s unofficial results are expected hours after polling stations close.
Morsi has ordered Egypt’s military to help police maintain security until the results are known. A total of 130,000 police and 120,000 soldiers are being deployed, interior ministry and military officials told AFP.
Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has organised large rallies and a campaign in favour of the draft constitution.
The main opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, mulled a boycott before instead urging Egyptians to vote against the charter, which rights groups say limits the freedoms of minorities and women.
In a small queue at a Cairo school serving as a polling station, watched over by police and soldiers, several people said they were voting against the constitution.
“I’m voting because I hate the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s very simple. They are liars,” said one, Abbas Abdelaziz, a 57-year-old accountant.