Military helicopters buzzed overhead and hundreds of thousands of soldiers and police were deployed as Egyptians voted Tuesday on a new constitution in a referendum that will pave the way for a likely presidential run by the nation's top general months after he ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.
The two-day balloting is a key milestone in a military-backed political road map toward new elections for a president and a parliament after the July coup that has left the Arab world's most populous nation sharply divided between Brotherhood supporters in one camp, and the military, security forces and their supporters in the other.
It is taking place in a climate of fear and paranoia, with authorities, the mostly pro-military media and a significant segment of the population showing little or no tolerance for dissent. Campaigning for a "no" vote risked arrest by the police and Egyptians who have publicized their opposition to the charter, even just parts of it, are quickly labelled as traitors or closest supporters of Morsi.
Some 160,000 soldiers and more than 200,000 policemen fanned out across the nation of some 90 million people to protect polling stations and voters against possible attacks by militants loyal to Morsi. Cars were prevented from parking or driving by polling stations and women were searched by female police officers. Military helicopters hovered over Cairo and other major cities.
Shortly before polls opened, an explosion struck a Cairo courthouse, damaging its facade and shattering windows in nearby buildings but causing no casualties in the densely populated neighbourhood of Imbaba — a Brotherhood stronghold.
Four people were killed when gunfire broke out between police and gunmen on rooftops as clashes broke out between pro-Morsi protesters and security forces in the southern city of Sohag, according to security officials. Three others were wounded, including a senior police officer.
A Morsi supporter also was shot to death as he and about 100 others tried to storm a polling station in the province of Bani Suef south of Cairo, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media. It was not clear who was behind the shooting.
In Cairo's working class district of Nahya, pro-Morsi protesters shot at and pelted with rocks a polling station before closing all entrances with chains, scaring away voters and locking election officials inside, Mohammed Seragedeen, the judge in charge of the station, said.
Security forces later fired tear gas to disperse the protesters and allow voting to resume, he said.
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others widely considered the freest ever seen in Egypt, including the June 2012 balloting won by Morsi. But this vote was tainted by criticism that many of the freedoms won in the anti-Mubarak revolution have vanished amid a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that has spread to others as the military-backed administration tries to suppress all dissent.
The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defence minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals.
The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 per cent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 per cent.
Military chief likely to seek presidency
The current government is looking for a bigger "yes" majority and larger turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for military chief Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to run for president this year. El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation's highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.
"The constitution is not perfect," said Ameena Abdel-Salam after she cast her ballot in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district. "But we need to move forward and we can fix it later."
Illustrating the high stakes, the government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as the key to the nation's security and stability. Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards urged Egyptians to vote "yes." People have been arrested for posters and campaigns calling for a "no" vote.
Long lines of voters began to form nearly two hours before polling stations opened in some Cairo districts, including Imbaba, where the blast promptly whipped up anti-Brotherhood sentiment with chants and shouting against the Islamist group.
Women and the elderly were heavily represented. The mood was generally upbeat, hostile toward the Brotherhood and hopeful that the charter would bring better days. In one women-only line in Cairo, voters sang the national anthem together as well as patriotic songs dating back to the 1960s. "El-Sissi is my president," they chanted as some jubilantly ululated.
Manal Hussein, who comes from a village below the Giza Pyramids plateau west of Cairo, wore a dress in the red, black and white colours of the national flag. Her daughter wore an Islamic veil in the same colours.
"This vote brings to an end the era of the Brotherhood, who divided us and turned family members against each other," Hussein said.
Outside a nearby polling station, 67-year-old Alaa al-Nabi Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment — that Egyptians have consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood's yearlong rule to the past.
"I am here to send a message to the world and to those who hate Egypt that we want to live and get our country back on its feet," he said.