CAIRO // Claims of widespread voting irregularities and breaches of electoral law overshadowed a massive turnout yesterday in Egypt's polarising constitutional referendum.
Elections held since Hosni Mubarak was forced from power last year were hailed as the most free and fair in Egypt's history. But because of the tight timetable and a government reduction in access to polling stations, many of the independent observers who monitored those viotes were not present yesterday.
That fuelled claims of electoral offences against president Mohammed Morsi from his opponents, who reported dozens of cases of improper supervision of polling stations and voter intimidation on the first day of the two-day referendum. Egyptians in 10 provinces voted yesterday, and the other half of the country will vote next Saturday.
Ali Hossam El Din, supervisor of a complaints hotline at the Ibn Khaldun Centre for Studies and Research in Cairo, said more offences had been reported by late afternoon than during previous elections.
"The news is very bad, especially in Upper Egypt," he said. "There are cases where the judge who was supposed to be watching over the station was not a real judge. There are complaints of fighting in some places and intimidation of voters."
Lawyers for groups supporting and opposing the constitutional draft were already planning to file claims with the Supreme Election Committee over the alleged offences, meaning that a battle in the courts could prolong uncertainty over Egypt's new constitution even if the tally reveals a clear winner after the final day of voting.
Voters in Cairo yesterday were split over the constitution. Some said they would vote yes to maintain stability and prevent the economy from worsening, and others said they opposed it because it was shoddily drafted, biased toward followers of political Islam or simply the product of an unrepresentative constitutional committee.
Khaled Hanafi, a former member of parliament for the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said he was confident the constitution would pass because there were no major disagreements over the document itself. Instead, he said, the opposition sought to use the constitution to damage the president's political capital in a bid to win more seats in parliamentary elections scheduled for the coming months.
"They are seeking political gains," he said, sitting in a cafe across from a polling station in the working-class Sayeda Zaineb district of Cairo. "But I am sure most people want stability for the country, which can only come when we have a new constitution. If the president has stability, he can bring development. That is what the opposition fears most."
But just across the street from Dr Hanafi and in other parts of Cairo, a more nuanced debate suggested support for the president and the powerful Freedom and Justice Party was not absolute.
Mandouh Mohammed Abdel Moneim, 56, a professor of microbiology at the Agriculture Research Centre in Cairo, said he was voting yes not because it was a great constitution, but because Egypt could not stand another period of uncertainty.
"There are many problems with the constitution, but I think it is better to vote yes now and fix the problems later through the parliament," he said.
Standing at a school near the historic Citadel in Islamic Cairo, with a dozen minarets of mosques on the skyline, Ashraf Mohammed, 35, said he supported some of the initiatives of the president but not the constitution.
"I voted no," said Mr Mohammed, a trader in women's handbags and shoes. "I understand that we are on the first steps of democracy, but we are not going the right way. This constitution would allow for the Brotherhood to become the new dictators of my country."
Across the city, Egyptians spoke in dark terms about what would happen if the constitution did or did not pass.
At a polling station near Tahrir Square, Amgad Naguib Abdullah, 50, an antiques collector, said the referendum meant "life or death for Egypt, and it looks like it will be death".
"They want the woman to stay in the house," he said, reeling off his complaints. "It doesn't deal with jobs, poverty, informal housing."
Nevine Ibrahim, 39, an estate agent standing in line on the upmarket island of Zamalek, said she was voting no to prevent the rise of another all-powerful president and a "radical constitution" that infringed on the rights of Egyptians.
In the impoverished district of Hadaiq Al Shubra, some saw the constitution and economy as intrinsically linked. The Brotherhood has paid for billboards around Cairo that call on people to "Vote yes to keep the wheel turning".
Ibrahim Mohamed, 52, a manager at a ceramics company, said he voted yes "for stability" and "to end the period we're in and get people working again".
* Additional reporting by Stephen Kalin