CAIRO - Egyptians voted on Saturday in the second and final phase of a referendum on an Islamist-backed constitution that has polarized the nation, with little indication that the result of the vote will end the political crisis in which the country is mired.
For some supporters, a 'yes' vote was a chance to restore some normalcy after nearly two years of tumultuous transitional politics following Egypt's 2011 revolution, or to make society and laws more Islamic. Opponents saw their 'no' vote as a way to preserve the country's secular traditions and prevent President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group from getting a lock on power.
"I came early to make sure my 'no' is among the first of millions today," oil company manager Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz said as he waited in line outside a polling station in the Dokki district of Giza, Cairo's twin city on the west bank of the Nile. "I am here to say 'no' to Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood," he said.
Another Giza voter, accountant and mother of three Sahar Mohamed Zakaria, had a different take on Saturday's vote.
"I'm voting 'yes' for stability," she announced.
Saturday's vote is taking place in 17 of Egypt's 27 provinces with about 25 million eligible voters. The first phase on Dec. 15 produced a "yes" majority of about 56 per cent with a turnout of some 32 per cent, according to unofficial results. Unofficial votes for the second round are expected late Saturday or early Sunday.
As was the case in last week's vote, opposition and rights activists reported numerous irregularities: polling stations opened later than scheduled, Islamists outside the polling stations trying to influence voters to say "yes," and independent monitors denied access.
The vote comes a day after clashes between Morsi's opponents and supporters in the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria. It was the latest outbreak of street violence in more than four weeks of turmoil, with the country divided first over the president's powers then over the draft constitution.
The clashes — in which opponents of Islamists set fire to cars and dozens of people were hurt — illustrated how the new constitution, regardless of whether it is adopted or not, is unlikely to ease the conflict over the country's future.
In Fayoum, the capital of an oasis province of the same name where Islamist groups have traditionally had strong support, a member of the local Christian community said she also supported the charter.
Hanaa Zaki said she was also voting "yes" for stability and an end to the country's deepening economic problems. Most Christians elsewhere in the country are seen to oppose the draft.
Speaking as she waited in line along with bearded Muslim men and Muslim women wearing headscarves, Zaki said: "I have a son who didn't get paid for the past six months. We have been in this crisis for so long and we are fed up."
In the village of Sanaro, also in Fayoum province some 100 kilometres (60 miles) southwest of Cairo, farmer Azouz Ayesh sat with his neighbours as their cattle grazed in a nearby field. "I don't trust the Brotherhood anymore and I don't trust the opposition either. We are forgotten, the most miserable and the first to suffer. If I say 'yes' there will be stability and if I say 'no' there will still be no stability," he said.
"But I will vote against this constitution," he added.
In the neighbouring village of Sheikh Fadl, a car fitted with loudspeakers toured the area with a man shouting, "Yes, yes to the constitution!" In the city of Fayoum, a man could be seen painting over posters urging people to vote "no."
In Giza's upscale Mohandiseen neighbourhood, a group of 12 women speaking to each other in a mix of French, Arabic and English said they all intended to vote "no."
"My friends are Muslim and are voting 'no.' It's not about Christian versus Muslim, but it is Muslim Brotherhood versus everyone else," said one of the 12, Christian physician Shahira Sadeq. "Voting 'yes' does not mean stability."
Kamla el-Tantawi, 65, voted with her daughter and grand-daughter. "I voted 'no' against what I'm seeing," she said, gesturing to a woman standing close by wearing the full-face veil known as niqab and as a hallmark of ultraconservative Muslim women. "I lose sleep thinking about my grandchildren and their future. They never saw the beautiful Egypt we did."
"Morsi, God willing, will be better than those who came before him," said Zeinab Khalil, a mother of three who wears the niqab, said. "A 'yes' vote moves the country forward. We want things to calm down, more jobs and better education," she said, while waiting for her turn to vote in Giza's poor Imbaba district, a one-time stronghold of militant Islamists.
In part, Egypt's split has been over who will shape the country's path nearly two years after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
An opposition made up of liberals, leftists, secular Egyptians and a swath of the public angered over Morsi's 5-month-old rule fear that Islamists are creating a new Mubarak-style autocracy. They accuse the Brotherhood of monopolizing the levers of power and point to the draft charter, which Islamists on the Constituent Assembly rammed through despite a boycott by liberal and secular members. They are calling on supporters to vote "no."
Morsi's allies say the opposition is trying to use the streets to overturn their victories at the ballot box over the past two years. They also accuse the opposition of carrying out a conspiracy by former members of Mubarak's regime to regain power.
If the constitution is adopted, Morsi will call for the election of parliament's law-making lower chamber to be held within two months while giving the mostly toothless upper chamber legislative powers until the lower house is seated.
The upper chamber, known as the Shura Council, was elected by less than 10 per cent of the country's 50 million registered voters. It is dominated by Islamists.
Morsi was already gearing up for the next steps after the constitution's passage, making a last-minute appointment of 90 new members to the Shura Council, a third of its total membership. Current rules allow him to do so, but if he waited until the charter was passed he could only appoint 10.
Friday's appointments added to the handful of non-Islamists in the upper house, but preserved the Islamists' overwhelming hold.
A spokesman for the main opposition umbrella National Salvation Front dismissed the appointments, accusing Morsi of setting up a token opposition much like Mubarak did.
Associated Press writer Maggie Michael reported from Fayoum, Egypt.