Against a backdrop of violent protest a divided country votes in controversial referendum.
Egyptians are heading to the polls today to vote on a constitutional referendum which has split the country and sparked huge and often violent protest across the country.
On one side of the divide is President Mohammed Mursi, his Muslim Brotherhood party, and their supporters, who back the referendum. Their opponents, led by opposition party the National Salvation Front (NSF), oppose the proposed constitutional amendment, saying that it is too Islamist and that it does not protect women’s or human rights.
The referendum asks Egypt’s estimated 51 million registered voters to either accept or reject a document that needs to be in place ahead of elections due to take place next year. The vote has become seen as a crucial decision on the future direction Egypt is likely to take – that of an Islamic country, or a more secular path.
Polls opened today in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other provinces. The rest of the country votes on December 22.
Supporters of both opposing camps have taken to the streets of Egypt’s major cities to demonstrate, causing widespread violence and clashes with the police and the military, with President Mursi granting the latter the power to arrest civilians. Associated Foreign Press reports that 120,000 and 130, 000 police officers are being deployed to keep the peace. Several people have already died in the clashes, while tear gas was used last night to disperse crowds of protestors.
Tensions have been mounting in Egypt for some time, causing huge upheaval. Earlier this month President Mursi scrapped a controversial decree that would have seen him given increased powers. The legislation, which would have seen some challenges to his decisions banned, sparked major protests in the Cairo and other major cities. Meanwhile, Egypt has also had to ask the International Monetary Fund to postpone delivery of a crucial loan until the crisis has ended.
Observers report that, even in the eventuality of a clear decision in the referendum, the debate will continue to be fiercely fought in a highly divided country.