CAIRO (AP) — Egypt's Islamist government is forging ahead with a highly contentious referendum on a draft constitution, opening the doors of diplomatic missions Wednesday to half a million expatriate voters, the country's official news agency says.
The move shows the determination of President Mohammed Morsi to go forward with the process despite a three-week political crisis and deepening polarization over the document.
The drafting committee rushed through the document in a marathon session last month. Islamists say its approval will restore political stability and allow the rebuilding of the institutions of government. They say it contains new articles banning many of the human rights abuses that were commonplace under Morsi's ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
Liberals, secularists, Christians, and other critics say the draft is full of obscurely worded clauses that could give clerics a say over legality of legislation and allow civil rights to be curtailed by hardline interpretations of Islamic Shariah law. They say the 100-member constituent assembly tasked to draft the constitution was packed with Islamists and ultraconservatives who ignored other group's concerns and sped the draft through.
The full vote was initially scheduled to take place on Dec. 15, but in a last minute Tuesday decree, Morsi ordered the voting stretched into another round on Dec. 22. Voting must be overseen by judges but the powerful judges' union voted late Tuesday not to supervise the process, protesting an earlier and now rescinded decree by Morsi placing him above judicial oversight.
Some judges may still participate, but the boycott is likely to damage the legitimacy of the process, and thus the legitimacy of the constitution itself, among much of the public.
Zaghloul el-Balshi, head of the referendum's organizing committee, said on Tuesday that 9,000 judges had agreed to oversee the voting. His claim could not be independently verified. The total number of polling stations in Egypt reaches nearly 13,000, each of which normally requires a judge. Aides to Morsi said before that judges are only needed to supervise the 9,000 main stations, while government employees or university professors can fill in at the rest.
The vote overseas could give hints at which direction the referendum is going. Egyptian expatriates in the Gulf are known to lean toward Islamists while others in Europe and Australia, among them large number of Christian migrants, lean more toward liberals.
Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali described the vote as the "first step toward constructing democracy after the (2011) revolution."
In the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, a handful of voters showed up after the vote started at 8:00 a.m. local time. Mohammed Abdullah, a physician, said he voted yes because he wants stability, and any changes could be made later. "We can make whatever amendments we want but we have to get through this and return to normalcy," he said.
The Middle East News Agency says that Egyptian expatriates have up until Saturday to cast ballots in 150 diplomatic missions worldwide.
Two months after passing the referendum, the country is scheduled to have new parliamentary elections. A parliament elected after the uprising was disbanded after courts ruled the elections law was unconstitutional.
AP writer Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report