Egyptians Vote On Contested Constitution Draft

In Egypt, voter turnout is high in the first phase of a controversial constitutional referendum. This comes after more than three weeks of mass protests for and against the document and President Mohammed Morsi, leaving Egypt deeply divided.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

We're going to turn to other news for a moment and a story out of Egypt. Voters in that country began to turn out for the first phase of a controversial constitutional amendment. Opponents of that Islamist-backed draft constitution have been mounting protests for weeks. Some of those clashes turned deadly. Reporter Merrit Kennedy is in Alexandria, and she sent this report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

MERRIT KENNEDY, BYLINE: Kareem Mahrous and Emad el-Din Ismail are close friends and both devout Muslims. But like many Egyptians, they've been hotly debating the draft constitution. Mahrous, a political science teacher, voted no today.

KAREEM MAHROUS: (Through translator) This constitution leads us to a disastrous division, a constitution that doesn't represent all segments of society.

KENNEDY: Like others, he's concerned that the document doesn't do enough to protect basic human rights. But his friend Ismail, an accountant and a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, voted in favor of the constitution.

EMAD EL-DIN ISMAIL: (Through translator) It is my conviction. After I read it, I was convinced. We need to push forward.

KENNEDY: The debate is not always so amicable. Clashes broke out here yesterday between supporters and opponents of the draft, injuring at least 23 people. But despite last night's violence, voters flocked to polling stations today to cast their votes. There was high turnout across the country, and voting hours were extended to accommodate the crowds.

Sheikh Ahmed Farid, a prominent cleric from the hard-line Salafi movement, says that this draft constitution is the best he could hope for now.

SHEIKH AHMED FARID: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: He says that he applauds the expansion of Sharia, or Islamic law, in the document. On the other hand, there are voters like accountant Hussein Nabawi who voted yes because he believes it will bring stability to the country.

HUSSEIN NABAWI: (Foreign language spoken)

KENNEDY: He says that it's time to build new institutions because it's been two years since Egyptians took their country back. But civil society advocate Mohammed Abushakra, who voted no, worries that if such an important document passes by only a slim margin, it will cause further unrest. He says it may call the legitimacy of the constitution into question.

What's more, Abushakra says the lead-up to the vote was rushed, and there were only two weeks to prepare after the constitution was approved by the drafting assembly.

MOHAMMED ABUSHAKRA: So nobody had enough time to do propaganda or even educate the people about it. So I'm sure that the majority of, I mean, a huge portion of those who will say yes or no, they don't know why or they didn't even read the documents, but they are doing that because a politician or a symbol that they favor has said that.

KENNEDY: Half of Egypt will have more time to decide. They'll vote next Saturday. And if the country says no, it'll be back to the drawing board. For NPR News, I'm Merrit Kennedy in Alexandria, Egypt.

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