Egypt holds second round of voting on constitution

Approval expected, but violence lingers between opponents

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CAIRO -- Egyptians returned to the polls Saturday for the second and final day of a national referendum on a new constitution that would deepen the influence of Islamic law in this country.

The charter is expected to pass, and those who support it said they hoped Saturday's vote would usher in a semblance of stability, ending a month-long political crisis that has seen bitter ideological divisions between Islamists and their opponents devolve into violent street battles.

Also Saturday, Egyptian Vice President Mahmoud Mekki, a career judge whose post will be eliminated by the new charter, announced his resignation, raising suspicion among opposition members that the move had been triggered by a break with the country's elected president, Mohammed Morsi.

"I have realized for a while that politics does not suit my natural profession as a judge," Mr. Mekki said in a statement late in the day. He said that he had submitted his resignation Nov. 7 but that the request had been "delayed" while he fulfilled various vice-presidential duties.

Although the new constitution was expected to win approval, clashes between its Islamist supporters and opposition members on the eve of Saturday's vote highlighted the lingering uncertainty about Egypt's political future.

Divisions over the constitution have pitted Mr. Morsi, who is backed by the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, against a broad coalition of liberals, leftists and Christians, who accuse the Islamists of seeking to entrench their own power and ideology amid a tumultuous transition from authoritarian rule. The Islamists say the new constitution and the Islamist-dominated assembly that drafted it reflect Egypt's democratically expressed will.

Preliminary results from the first round of voting on Dec. 15 showed that 56 percent voted in favor of the constitution, despite a weak effort by opposition groups to lobby for a 'no' vote. And as Egypt's remaining provinces -- some with strong Islamist constituencies -- voted Saturday, many said they expected an even wider majority by day's end. Official results are expected Monday.

If the charter passes, the government is required to hold parliamentary elections within 60 days. The upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council -- another body stacked with Islamists -- would meanwhile assume legislative control of the country.

Some of Mr. Morsi's opponents voiced a feeling of frustrated resignation as they went to the polls Saturday, casting their ballots against what they called a "Muslim Brotherhood constitution" even as they predicted that the referendum would pass.

Opposition members say that the constitution, which was hastily approved last month by an assembly dominated by Islamists, fails to enshrine the rights of women and minority groups, while leaving the door open to fundamentalist interpretations of Islamic law. Many said Saturday they believed that the charter, if passed, would carry dire consequences for Egypt's Christian minority in a country already fraught with sectarian tension.

If passed, the constitution would also give al-Azhar, the country's highest Islamic authority, extraordinary power to pass judgment on the religious merits of the nation's laws.

Opposition protesters clashed with Islamists in the coastal city of Alexandria on Friday night, hurling stones and setting fire to two buses as police fired tear gas to separate the two sides in the hours before the polls opened.

Opposition activists accused the Muslim Brotherhood of committing serious electoral violations in last week's round of voting. And many cited fresh claims on Saturday, including voter intimidation and delayed poll openings in several districts.

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