More than a year after toppling autocrat Hosni Mubarak, Egyptians headed to the polls on Saturday to vote on a constitution that will shape Egyptian politics in the post-Mubarak era.
The contentious referendum has pitted the country’s newly empowered Islamists against liberal and secular opponents. President Mohammed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has faced widespread criticism and angry street demonstrations for pushing the constitution through the Constitutional Assembly without judicial oversight.
Morsi has said he is trying to protect the country’s fledgling democracy from Mubarak-era judges, but opponents see a power grab reminiscent of Mubarak’s strongman tactics.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters and their rivals have clashed in street protests, including a protest outside the presidential palace that claimed at least eight lives last week. Another demonstration descended into violence on Friday, with a leading opposition group rallying supporters in Tahrir Square to vote against the constitution.
Critics of the constitutional proposal say it enshrines Islamist principles in Egypt’s legal code at the expense of women and religious minorities. While Egypt’s constitution under Mubarak alluded to Islamic principles as the basis of the law, overtly Islamic groups like the Muslim Brotherhood were banned.
But since Mubarak’s ouster, the Brotherhood has emerged as the most powerful and best-organized force in Eyptian politics.
Supporters say passing a constitution will help Egypt move beyond its current political stalemate. The country’s High Constitutional Court, with the backing of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, dissolved Egypt’s newly elected parliament earlier this year, and a new parliamentary election cannot occur until a new constitution is put in place.
For the proposed constitution to be approved, a majority of Egyptian voters must vote in favor of it. Voting is divided into two phases, with the second round to be held on Dec. 22.