CAIRO // Islamists clashed yesterday with protesters opposed to president Mohammed Morsi outside a mosque in Alexandria that has become a flashpoint in the dispute over Egypt's constitution.
Police fired tear gas to halt a confrontation near the Qaed Ibrahim mosque, where a week ago an imam who called on Egyptians to vote yes in the referendum was trapped for 14 hours after anti-Morsi protesters surrounded the building.
Rival factions had used clubs, knives and swords against each other. Yesterday they threw rocks and came to blows.
Islamist demonstrators chanted: "The people want the implementation of God's Sharia," and "We sacrifice our soul and our blood for Islam". At least 58 people were injured.
The violence broke out amid continuing tensions over the draft constitution before today's second and final round of voting.
Preliminary results from the first round showed 56.5 per cent of Egyptians approving the constitution, and analysts say an overall yes vote is nearly certain.
The draft constitution and Mr Morsi's controversial decrees have plunged Egypt into a protracted political crisis, starting on November 22 when the president gave himself powers beyond the oversight of the judiciary and continuing through the past month with huge demonstrations across the country.
Mr Morsi said his decree was not a power grab, but an attempt to protect the constitutional assembly from a potential disbanding ordered by the courts. His supporters have alleged an anti-Islamist conspiracy among some members of the judiciary.
Mr Morsi replaced his decree two weeks later with a milder version that did not include protection of his edicts from the courts. However, his actions and a speech claiming that the protesters against him were infiltrated by a "fifth column" made up of members of the regime of the deposed president Hosni Mubarak galvanised the opposition movement against his government.
The National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition group, called on its supporters before last Saturday's first round of voting to say no to the constitution. But the Brotherhood, of which Mr Morsi is a former leader, and other supporters of the constitution managed to mobilise more votes so far.
The opposition has alleged widespread electoral offences, including polling stations that were not manned by judges as required by law and intimidation of voters. A special judicial panel is investigating the claims.
Even if Mr Morsi is victorious in the battle over the constitution, as the first round of voting suggests, he will be left with a deeply divided country and a re-energised opposition movement made up of liberals, secularists and moderate Islamists.
The greater challenge for his presidency will be steering the economy back on track after two years of rising unemployment and shrinking reserves.
The test of whether opposition groups can weaken the Muslim Brotherhood's power in Egypt would come if new parliamentary elections are held in the next few months.
In parliamentary elections this year, the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the ultraconservative Salafist party, Al Nour, won nearly 70 per cent of the seats in the lower house of parliament. But the People's Assembly was dissolved by the Supreme Constitutional Court after it ruled that a third of the elections were unconstitutional.
Yesterday Mr Morsi appointed 90 people to parliament's upper house. If the proposed constitution is approved, the Shura Council, normally an advisory body with no legislative authority, is set to wield temporary lawmaking powers until the lower house is elected in two months. The president has the right to pick a third of the council's 270 members. The state news agency, MENA, reported that 75 per cent of the appointees were not Islamists, suggesting Mr Morsi was trying to dampen claims from the opposition that he is packing the government with supporters.
Twelve of the appointees were Coptic Christians and the rest were from 17 political parties and Al Azhar, MENA said. Since his inauguration as president in June, Mr Morsi has attempted to consolidate power in the executive branch. He replaced several top generals in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the council that was overseeing Egypt's transition after Mubarak resigned amid an uprising last year, and gave himself full legislative powers until a new parliament could be elected.
The constitutional draft has been criticised by opposition forces because its writing was dominated by Islamists, who have enshrined a greater role for religion in politics and failed to protect minorities, women and those who do not follow one of the three main religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The Brotherhood, on the other hand, has called it the "best constitution in Egypt's history".
Amid the political crisis, Egyptian institutions have been racked by tumult. Mr Morsi's new public prosecutor, Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah, resigned on December 17 after pressure from lawyers and judges but on Thursday rescinded his resignation. Mr Abdullah's appointment was part of Mr Morsi's controversial November 22 decree.
* With additional reporting by Reuters