Votes are being counted in Egypt Sunday after the first round of a two-stage referendum on a draft constitution, with unofficial tallies by the Muslim Brotherhood suggesting that Egyptians were narrowly favoring the Islamist-backed constitution.
In the districts that voted Saturday, which include the opposition strongholds of Cairo and Alexandria, 56.5 percent voted yes, a senior official from President Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party told Reuters.
Only about one-third of 26 million people eligible to vote in the first round cast ballots, the Voice of America reported.
While an opposition politician conceded the "yes" camp appeared to have won the first round, the opposition National Salvation Front said voting abuses meant a rerun was needed - although it did not explicitly challenge the Brotherhood's vote tally.
Front leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a former chief of the U.N. nuclear energy agency, tweeted: "Country split, flagrant irregularities, low turnout, disillusion w(ith) Islamists on the rise. Illiteracy remains a hurdle."
Opposition leader Sameh Ashour charged, in a press conference, that many of tho people allowed to supervise polling stations were not judges, VOA reported. A large portion of Egypt's judiciary boycotted the referendum, and a top judicial body, the Judges' Club, he said, observed many non-judges overseeing the vote.
Ashour said the Judges' Club, which is boycotting the referendum, determined there were 120 individuals falsely impersonating judges and allowed to supervise polling stations and vote counting.
Rights groups also reported abuses such as polling stations opening late, officials telling people how to vote and bribery. They also criticized widespread religious campaigning which portrayed "no" voters as heretics.
The judge who heads Egypt's High Electoral Commission, Zaghloul al-Balshi, insisted that the vote was impartial and fair. He said the commission received allegations of irregularities, but they were not true.
The National Salvation Front, which first called for a boycott of the referendum, switched Thursday to campaign for a no vote.
Violence was reported during voting, but Saturday was more peaceful compared to the clashes Friday, between rival factions armed with clubs, knives and swords in the streets of Alexandria.
Cairo and other cities and towns witnessed a high turnout, news reports said.
Rights groups have expressed concern about the fairness of the process, saying some polling stations had opened late and officials had told people to vote yes, while reporting instances of bribery and intimidation.
Official results are not expected until after the next round Saturday.
The country's electoral commission announced Wednesday that the vote would take place Dec. 15 and a week later Dec. 22, in different regions. This was necessary because some judges who would monitor the voting refused to take part.
Morsi and his Islamist supporters say the constitution is vital to move Egypt's democratic transition forward. But the president’s liberal, secular opponents argue that it does not represent the aspirations of all Egyptians because of provisions that give Muslim clerics a role in shaping laws. The main opposition coalition also demands more safeguards for women and minorities.
If the newly issued constitution passes the public referendum, Morsi says he will lift a decree claiming emergency powers. The Nov. 22 proclamation set off protests and street battles. The protests grew when the Islamists rushed the drafting of the new constitution, after liberals, journalists and Christian churches had boycotted the constituent assembly.
A new parliament will be elected after the constitution is ratified to replace the Islamist-dominated house.
Despite the protests, which took a violent turn last week, Morsi was anxious to put the proposed constitution to public vote, as it must be in place before national elections can be held. The elections are expected early next year.