CAIRO — Military helicopters buzzed overhead and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police were deployed as Egyptians voted Tuesday on a new constitution in a referendum that will pave the way for a likely presidential run by the nation's top general months after he ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
The two-day balloting is a key milestone in a military-backed political roadmap toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the July coup that has left the Arab world's most populous nation sharply divided between Brotherhood supporters in one camp, and the military, security forces and their supporters in the other.
It is taking place in a climate of fear and paranoia, with authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant segment of the population 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 or closest supporters of Morsi.
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.
Four people were killed when gunfire broke out between police and gunmen on rooftops as clashes broke out between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces in the southern city of 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.
"The constitution is not perfect," said Ameena Abdel-Salam after she cast her ballot in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district. "But we need to move forward and we can fix it later."
Illustrating the high stakes, the government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as the key to the nation's security and stability. Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards urged Egyptians to vote "yes." People have been arrested for posters and campaigns calling for a "no" vote.
Long lines of voters began to form nearly two hours before polling stations opened in some Cairo districts, including Imbaba, where the blast promptly whipped up anti-Brotherhood sentiment with chants and shouting against the Islamist group.
Women and the elderly were heavily represented. The mood was generally upbeat, hostile toward the Brotherhood and hopeful that the charter would bring better days. In one women-only line in Cairo, voters sang the national anthem together as well as patriotic songs dating back to the 1960s. "El-Sissi is my president," they chanted as some jubilantly ululated.
Manal Hussein, who comes from a village below the Giza Pyramids plateau west of Cairo, wore a dress in the red, black and white colors of the national flag. Her daughter wore an Islamic veil in the same colors.
"This vote brings to an end the era of the Brotherhood, who divided us and turned family members against each other," Hussein said.
Outside a nearby polling station, 67-year-old Alaa al-Nabi Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment — that Egyptians have consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood's yearlong rule to the past.
"I am here to send a message to the world and to those who hate Egypt that we want to live and get our country back on its feet," he said.
The balloting is the first electoral test for the popularly backed coup that ousted Morsi and his Brotherhood. A comfortable "yes" vote and a respectable turnout would bestow legitimacy on the cascade of events that followed the coup while undermining the Islamists' argument that Morsi remains the nation's elected president.
The Brotherhood, now branded as a terrorist group, has called for a boycott of the vote. Morsi himself is facing three separate trials on charges that carry the death penalty.
The unprecedented security surrounding the vote follows months of violence that authorities have blamed on Islamic militants. In the six months since Morsi's ouster, there has been an assassination attempt on the interior minister and deadly attacks on key security officers, soldiers, policemen and provincial security and military intelligence headquarters.
"You must come out and vote to prove to those behind the dark terrorism that you are not afraid," Interim President Adly Mansour told reporters after he cast his ballot.
Morsi's supporters have promised massive demonstrations and have labeled the draft charter a "constitution of blood," but protests in several parts of the country drew only several hundred supporters.
The government has warned it would deal harshly with anyone interfering with the referendum.
Most of Egypt's minority Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have backed the removal of Morsi and the charter in hopes of winning religious freedoms.
"Anyone who was raised in Egypt will choose this constitution," said Verta Nassif, a 70-year old Christian from Assuit, a stronghold of Islamists and home to a large Christian community south of Cairo.
There was a lone voice of dissent outside another polling station in Assiut.
"El-Sissi is a killer and his constitution is void," shouted a woman, who left the scene just before a security team arrived to look for her. At a nearby outdoor market, Hany Abdel-Hakeem was arguing with a vendor.
"I will not participate in anything I am not convinced of. And if I say anything against it, I will be arrested. Keeping silent is better."
El Deeb reported from Assiut, Egypt. Associated Press reporters Maggie Hyde and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report from Cairo.
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