Mohamed Morsi registers before casting his vote on a new constitution at a polling station in Cairo on December 15, 2012
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi registers before casting his vote on a new constitution at a polling station near the presidential palace in Cairo on December 15, 2012. Voting in Egypt's referendum on a new constitution may have started calmly but there was no mistaking the highly charged atmosphere that has polarised citizens for weeks. © - Egyptian Presidency/AFP
Mohamed Morsi registers before casting his vote on a new constitution at a polling station in Cairo on December 15, 2012
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John Davison and Guillaume Decamme, AFP
Last updated: December 15, 2012

Morsi a polarising figure in Egypt's referendum

Voting in Egypt's referendum on a new constitution on Saturday underlined the highly charged atmosphere that has polarised citizens of the Arab world's most populous country for weeks.

Hostility and fear of the Islamist line espoused by President Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood were major reasons many voters gave for casting "no" ballots, as much as their opposition to the text of the draft charter itself.

"I'm voting because I hate the Muslim Brotherhood. They're liars," said Abbas Abdel Aziz, a 57-year-old accountant, lining up at a polling station in Cairo's central Sayyeda Zeinab district.

"I voted for Morsi and it was a big mistake. This constitution fails to forbid children from working and paves the way for underage marriage," said Ali Mohammed Ali, an unemployed 65-year-old who voted for Morsi in May-June elections.

Nearby, police and soldiers guarded the front gate of the school acting as a polling station, on the lookout for any of the violence that since last month has marked protests for and against Morsi and the proposed constitution.

But in the same queue to vote there were others who backed the new charter, on what they saw as its merits.

"I have read the constitution to see if what the opposition say is true, and it's not. It's a good constitution," insisted Enayat Sayyed Mustafa, a retired woman.

In a women-only polling station in the capital's Shubra neighbourhood, where a large Coptic Christian community lives, a somewhat chaotic situation reigned, with women unsure in which classroom they were supposed to cast their ballots.

Illiterate voters had to be asked out loud by organisers whether they wanted to vote "yes" or "no" to the constitution, an AFP photographer there said.

Here, too, the divisions were evident.

Sally Rafid, a 28-year-old Christian casting her ballot, said: "There are many things in the constitution people don't agree on, and it's not just the articles on religion. I'm voting against it."

A veiled Muslim women in her 30s, carrying an infant son who gave only her last name, Sabbah, disagreed.

"The constitution is excellent," she said, "and with it freedom is improving. And there are articles that deal with religion and Islamic law, which the previous constitution didn't address properly."

In Egypt's second city Alexandria, calm returned to the streets after clashes there on Friday that the official news agency MENA said left 23 people hurt. They were sparked by a local cleric urging worshippers in his mosque to vote 'yes' in the referendum.

"We will arrest anyone who starts riots," Khaled el-Azazi, spokesman for the regional security authorities, told AFP.

Hani Mikhail Butros, a practising Coptic Christian, turned out to vote on Saturday, saying "the constitution doesn't represent all Egyptians."

He added: "If the 'yes' vote goes through, we fear Muslim Brotherhood militias will feel freer to attack us."

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