Divided Egypt goes to polls amid chaos warnings
An ever more divided Egypt went to the polls yesterday for the sixth time in less than two years, with political leaders warning of worsening chaos, instability and violence whatever the result.
For the first time the vote, a referendum on a new Islamist-oriented constitution, was overshadowed by direct and violent sectarian language.
Muslim Brotherhood leaders campaigning for a "yes" vote have accused the opposition of being stirred up by foreign money from the Gulf, remnants of the old dictatorship of ex-President Hosni Mubarak or, alarmingly, of being dominated by Coptic Christians trying to divide the country.
"A message to the Egyptian church from an Egyptian Muslim: I tell the church by Allah, if you conspire and unite with the opposition to bring Morsi down, we will have another talk," one well-known, rabble-rousing preacher, Safwat Hegazi, told a crowd of cheering supporters last week.
Mr Hegazi is close to the Muslim Brotherhood backers of President Mohammed Morsi, and they have not dissociated themselves from his views. "We say, I say to the church: yes, you share this country with us, but there are red lines, and our red line is the legitimacy of Dr Morsi."
The referendum is to approve a constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated assembly at the end of November. The draft was rushed through in 16 hours after months of negotiations which saw most secular, liberal, leftist and Christian representatives walk out, saying their voices were not being heard.
It bans the use of torture and enshrines some basic rights. But promises of freedom of speech and freedom of religious belief are balanced by clauses banning "insults" against people or the prophets. It also lays stress on preserving the "traditional Egyptian family", raising fears of religious supervision of private lives.
With few reliable opinion surveys, the outcome is unpredictable. Anything less than a big majority for the "yes" campaign is likely to bring accusations that the poll lacks "legitimacy".