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Egyptians vote on constitution as bomb underscores divide

Egyptian security forces stand guard as people queue outside a polling centre to vote on a new constitution on January 14, 2014 in Cairo
Egyptian security forces stand guard as people queue outside a polling centre to vote on a new constitution on January 14, 2014 in Cairo

Egyptians were voting on a new constitution Tuesday amid high security in a referendum likely to launch a presidential bid by the army chief who overthrew Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.

The military-installed government implored voters to turn out en masse to ratify the constitution, with the country's lingering polarisation underscored by the explosion of a small bomb in Cairo that caused no injuries.

An Islamist coalition led by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood has called for a boycott and "civilised peaceful protests" during the two days of polling, and the interior ministry has pledged to confront attempts to disrupt voting.

Defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the general who overthrew Morsi in July, visited a polling station at a north Cairo school after voting began to survey the security preparations.

Egyptians queue up to cast their vote on a new constitution in the Giza district on the outskirts of Cairo on January 14, 2014
Egyptians queue up to cast their vote on a new constitution in the Giza district on the outskirts of Cairo on January 14, 2014

"Work hard. We need the referendum to be completely secured," he told soldiers guarding the school.

Shortly before polling stations opened, a small, improvised bomb exploded outside a Cairo court, damaging the facade but causing no injuries, police said.

It again highlighted the government's precarious grip on the most populous Arab country, still reeling from the ouster of Morsi and a bloody crackdown on his Islamist supporters.

The government hopes a large turnout in favour of the constitution will bolster its disputed authority, while Sisi will monitor it for an "indicator" of his popularity, an official close to the general said.

Interim president Adly Mansour entreated voters to cast their ballots.

An Egyptian man casts his vote on a new constitution in the Giza district on the outskirts of Cairo on January 14, 2014
An Egyptian man casts his vote on a new constitution in the Giza district on the outskirts of Cairo on January 14, 2014

"The people must prove to dark terrorism that they fear nothing," he said after casting his ballot.

"The voting is not only for the constitution, but also for the road map, so the country can have an elected president and a parliament."

The referendum will be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections.

The police and army have deployed hundreds of thousands of personnel to guard polling stations amid fears that a spate of militant attacks and protests would keep voters at home.

At one polling station for women at a school, dozens lined up to cast their ballots, some waving Egyptian flags and chanting pro-military slogans.

"We must be with our police and army so that no one can terrorise us. Even if a bomb exploded in my polling station, I will vote," said Salwa Abdel Fattah, a 50-year-old gynaecologist.

While it is uncertain how many Egyptians will vote amid concern over violence, the constitution appears certain to pass.

Charter bolsters army's powers

Egyptian women queue up to cast their vote on a new constitution in the Giza district on the outskirts of Cairo on January 14, 2014
Egyptian women queue up to cast their vote on a new constitution in the Giza district on the outskirts of Cairo on January 14, 2014

The charter has done away with much of the Islamist-inspired wording of Morsi's constitution, suspended on his overthrow, and its supporters say it expands women's rights and freedom of speech.

But it has bolstered the military's powers, granting the army the right to appoint the defence minister for the next eight years and to try civilians for attacks on the armed forces.

The runup to the vote has been marred by a deadly crackdown on Morsi's supporters, and arrests of activists who campaigned for a "no" vote.

At least seven activists have been detained in the past week as they distributed posters or leaflets critical of the new constitution, prominent rights lawyer Ragia Omran told AFP, adding that most were released after a few days.

The capital has been festooned with banners urging Egyptians to vote "yes", often featuring military motifs such as a general's hat, an allusion to army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Egypt's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, pictured in the district of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, on September 20, 2013
Egypt's army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, pictured in the district of Giza, on the outskirts of Cairo, on September 20, 2013

Many Islamists revile Sisi as the man who overthrew the country's first freely elected and civilian president, but the general is adored by the millions who took to the streets in July to demand Morsi's resignation.

The army chief is widely expected to run for president, and has said he would stand for election if he felt there was "popular demand," state media reported this week.

The authorities are worried that a low turnout would empower their Islamist opponents in Morsi's Brotherhood and cast further doubt on their legitimacy, analysts say.

Backers of the constitution are hoping for at least a 70 percent vote in favour of the constitution as a satisfying majority.

Morsi's constitution passed with 64 percent of the vote, but on a turnout of barely 33 percent of the country's 53 million voters.

At least 1,000 people, mostly Islamists, have been killed in street clashes, and thousands have been imprisoned since the ouster of Morsi, whose supporters continue protests almost every day.

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