Ballot reveals post-coup divisions
A referendum on a new constitution has laid bare the sharp divisions in Egypt, six months after the military removed the elected Islamist president.
Pro-army voters lined up outside polling stations, singing patriotic songs, kissing images of Egypt's top general and sharing upbeat hopes for their troubled nation.
Meanwhile sporadic violence flared across much of the country, leaving 11 dead, with protesters burning tyres and pelting police with rocks and firebombs, creating just enough tension to keep many voters at home.
Nevertheless, the first of two days of voting yielded telling signs that the national sentiment was overwhelmingly behind military chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, whose possible presidential run later this year has grown more likely by the day.
That a career army officer might be Egypt's next president has raised questions about the future of democracy in Egypt, but it also speaks to the fatigue felt by most people after three years of deadly turmoil and economic woes.
Standing in line outside a Cairo polling station to cast his ballot, Ismail Mustafa said he was voting Yes in the hope of ending the turmoil that has engulfed Egypt since the ousting in 2011 of the country's long-time autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.
"This is it, we have had it. I will vote Yes even if it is the last thing I do," Mr Mustafa declared.
This week's balloting is a key milestone in a military-backed political road map towards new elections for a president and a parliament after the July 3 coup that left the nation sharply divided between Muslim Brotherhood supporters in one camp and the military and security forces in another, backed by a large segment of the population that is yearning for stability after three years of turmoil.
It is taking place in a climate of fear and paranoia, with authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant number of Egyptians showing little or no tolerance for dissent.
Campaigning for a No vote risked arrest by the police, with Egyptians who have voiced their opposition to the charter, or even just parts of it, quickly labelled as traitors.
Nearly 400,000 soldiers and policemen fanned out across the nation of some 90 million people yesterday to protect voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to Islamist leader Mohammed Morsi, who was removed in last year's coup.
Cars were prevented from parking or driving by polling centres and women were searched by female police officers. Military helicopters hovered over Cairo and other major cities, while grim-faced, black-clad masked commandos stood guard outside polling stations.
Shortly before the polls opened, an explosion struck a Cairo court, damaging its facade and shattering windows in nearby buildings in the densely-populated neighbourhood of Imbaba, a Brotherhood stronghold.
The Health Ministry said 11 people were killed and 28 were wounded in clashes between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces. The relatively low number of fatalities was well below the grim predictions of major violence in the run-up to the ballot.
The Brotherhood, now branded a terrorist group, had called for a boycott of the vote and vowed mass demonstrations to disrupt it. But yesterday's widely scattered protests numbered no more than 200-300 people each, mostly teenagers and men in their early 20s, many armed with rocks, firebombs and bird shot.
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others widely considered the freest yet in Egypt, including the June 2012 election won by Mr Morsi.
But this vote was tainted by criticism that many of the freedoms won during the revolution have vanished amid a fierce crackdown on Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and a smear campaign against some of the activists who engineered the 2011 uprising but remained steadfastly opposed to the military's involvement in politics.
The new charter, drafted by a committee dominated by liberals 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 defence minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals in certain cases.
The charter is a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Mr Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64% of the vote, but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30%.
The current government is looking for a bigger Yes majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for Gen el-Sissi to run for president.