CAIRO — A deeply polarized Egypt was poised Friday to vote in a referendum that is likely to give the country a new constitution but that risks provoking even greater turmoil after weeks of jousting between onetime revolutionary allies.
With voting due to begin Saturday, the Islamists who back the draft charter and the loose coalition of liberals, leftists and Christians that opposes it were scrambling Friday to mobilize supporters. Most analysts said the superior organization of the Muslim Brotherhood would probably deliver a critical victory for President Mohamed Morsi, who was a longtime leader of the Islamist movement and has called on Egyptians to approve the document, which was largely drafted by his allies.
But few here believe that the vote will do anything to heal the political divisions that have exploded into deadly street clashes in recent days. On Friday, protesters armed with swords and stones battled in Alexandria, and at least 19 people were injured. Rival demonstrations in Cairo were tense but relatively peaceful.
The prospect of a “yes” vote on the charter has particularly enraged the young, secular Egyptians who were at the heart of the revolution early last year that drove out President Hosni Mubarak. Since Mubarak fell, they have been consistently outmaneuvered by the Islamists, who belatedly joined them in the streets during the revolution.
Islamists have triumphed in parliamentary and presidential votes, and a third win is likely to further sour secular revolutionaries on the democratic process they fought and died for just less than two years ago. At an opposition protest Friday, many were calling the vote illegitimate and promising to continue their campaign in the streets, regardless of what happens with the referendum.
“They are very active and very angry and very ready to use violence,” said Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
He noted that Islamists, too, are angry and feel that the country’s democratically elected leader is being unfairly maligned by demonstrators who have set up camp outside the presidential palace. There were reports Friday of preachers condemning as infidels those who vote against the charter.
“Saturday will be very, very risky for all Egyptians,” the analyst said.
After weeks of agonizing over whether to boycott the vote, opposition leaders opted Wednesday to urge their backers to participate, leaving them with just two full days to organize. They have done little since then to tamp down expectations of violence if the balloting does not go their way.
Prominent opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, on Thursday called on Morsi to postpone the vote and start the constitution-writing process from scratch to “avert the specter of civil war.”
The draft constitution is the product of a rushed and contentious process from which non-
Islamists withdrew in protest. The document is a hodgepodge of provisions, and it bears many similarities to the 1971 constitution that was in force throughout Mubarak’s three-decade rule.
But critics say the draft contains enough vaguely worded articles that it could allow Morsi and his allies to introduce a much larger role for religion in the affairs of the state. In particular, detractors say they are concerned about the lack of protections for women and religious minorities.
The draft maintains the vast powers of Egypt’s military, which has been keeping a wary eye on the street clashes and has warned both sides against an escalation. Morsi has given the armed forces the authority to arrest civilians and protect the “vital facilities of the state” until the results of the referendum are announced.
Balloting will take place over two days, with the second round on Dec. 22, because there are not enough judges available to monitor the voting at all the polling places. Many judges have said that they will refuse to supervise the vote, after Morsi issued a decree late last month giving himself extraordinary powers amid a standoff with the judiciary.
At the protest camp outside the presidential palace Friday, demonstrator Wael Abou Elil said he had no doubt that the vote would be rigged in favor of the Islamists. And when that happens, he said, “the people will flow into the streets like rain, and they won’t stop until Morsi goes.”
Elil, 42, is a curator of a makeshift museum of the revolution, which includes candlelight tributes to the movement’s “martyrs,” souvenirs such as tear gas canisters, and photos documenting particularly bloody moments in Egypt’s struggle. The images begin with the uprising against Mubarak but go on to depict many more campaigns against myriad adversaries, including the military, the police, Israel and, now, the Brotherhood.
The exhibit reflects the fractious opposition’s difficulty in developing a unified message for the country, beyond contempt for its enemies.
With Egypt struggling economically amid the turmoil, analysts said many here simply want to put the past two years behind them and move ahead with any vision for the country that will bring greater stability.
“The country is facing a major economic crisis. People are poor, and they can’t make ends meet,” said Mustapha Kamel al-Sayyid, a political science professor at Cairo University. “Talk about political rights doesn’t matter as much to people right now as talk of economic opportunity.”