An Egyptian man leaves after voting for referendum for a new constitution as an Egyptian soldier stands at the entrance with other people waiting in line to vote, at a polling station, in Cairo on Dec. 15, 2012. (ANDRE PAIN/EPA)

Egyptians on Saturday voted narrowly in favor of a contentious draft constitution that has become a referendum on whether President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist backers are trustworthy guardians of the diverse revolution that ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

“The referendum was 56.5 percent for the ‘yes’ vote,” a senior official in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party operations room told Reuters, citing its unofficial tally.

The party had representatives at almost all polling stations across the 10 areas, including Cairo, where the first round of voting was held. He said the tally was based on counts from more than 99 percent of polling stations.

Despite weeks of protests that have at times turned into bloody, rock-throwing brawls, voting appeared to be largely peaceful on the first of two Saturdays the balloting will be held. Morsi had empowered the military to protect polling sites and arrest civilians if necessary, but across Cairo, soldiers seemed more relaxed than tense as they mingled with police, smoked cigarettes or helped elderly voters up stairs. Official results will not be announced until after voting ends Dec. 22.

Saturday seemed to be a day for debate and, to some extent, reveling in disagreements rather than coming to blows over them.

“I will vote no, because some of the articles are not in our best interest,” said Nabil Aweys Khalifa, 56, an auto inspector waiting to vote in Zeinhom, a poor enclave in Cairo.

“This is your opinion!” interrupted Tamer Ali, 25, a chandelier-maker. “The government is good!”

“This is your opinion!” shouted a third man.

“See?” Khalifa said. “Now we have democracy.”

Shuffling along in lines that stretched through elite neighborhoods as well as those where goats grazed on piled-up trash, voters engaged in spirited discussions on the draft charter. Along with strong yeses and firm nos were nuanced comments suggesting complicated political identities.

“We are Islamists, but we don’t want the constitution to be controlled by one man. We don’t want to be brainwashed,” said 19-year-old university student Amal Ahmed, who was standing with a group of women in brightly colored scarves in the middle-class area of Zeitoun. “This constitution doesn’t give us liberty. I can’t understand the people who say yes. The people who are well-educated about their rights will say no.”

Across town in impoverished Zeinhom, where walls are plastered with graffiti, Said Attia, 62, a security guard who is not an Islamist, said he would vote yes on the Islamist-backed charter simply to move the country forward.

“All I want is stability,” he said, referring to protests that he considers a struggle among elites. “To see all these divisions, it’s not good. I want to try to give Morsi a chance to govern.”

The draft charter was passed by an Islamist-dominated assembly after many liberal, Christian and more moderate members walked out, saying their concerns about women’s rights, free speech and other protections were being ignored. As the previous constitution did, the draft charter establishes Islam as the basis of legislation. But it also enshrines al-Azhar, the respected center of Sunni Muslim scholarship, as a nonbinding interpreter of Islamic law, possibly shifting power away from the courts.

Analysts say the constitution leaves some room for interpretation on rights. For instance, it enshrines a right to free speech but also makes it illegal to insult “an individual person.” The charter establishes equality between men and women but contains a provision requiring the state to balance women’s rights with their “obligations to family.” Muslims, Christians and Jews are explicitly protected but members of minority religions are not.

But many waiting in polling lines Saturday were less worried about those specifics than about the way Morsi and his Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party pushed the charter to a vote. On Nov. 22, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration — since rescinded — placing his actions beyond judicial review. Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets, calling Morsi an Islamist dictator in the making.

Morsi’s decree protected the constitution-writing panel from dissolution by the country’s highest court and allowed him to call the referendum.

Morsi cast his actions as necessary to overcome a Mubarak-era judiciary that was trying to block Egypt’s democratically elected Islamist government from functioning. Opponents saw it as a power grab, and many who said they voted no on the draft charter cited a lack of trust in a government that would behave in such a manner.

“I feel if we say yes to this, it will be yes, yes, yes, forever,” said a young woman waiting to vote in the middle-class neighborhood of Manial. She did not want to give her name because, she said, “a lot of people are afraid of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

Officials with the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party said they were being careful not to do anything that could be perceived as violating the nation’s election laws.

But the group had set up tables on street corners where residents could ask a Brotherhood volunteer for help finding the proper polling place. Volunteers said they were trying not to push their own views.

“When Mubarak was president, people were unable to say yes or no. It was always yes, if that’s what Mubarak had decided,” said Ali Ibrahim, a 36-year-old technician who was manning a Brotherhood table in the heavily Islamist neighborhood of Matariya. “But Morsi has put the constitution in the people’s hands, and they can say whatever they want — yes or no.”

Most of those lined up at the local elementary school seemed to be saying yes.

After nearly two years of political turmoil, there is a widespread desire for stability, particularly in neighborhoods such as Matariya, where people are struggling to find jobs and pay rent.

“What we need now is economic stability, in addition to political stability,” said Alaa el-Khodary, 52, who said he was voting yes in part to end protests that he thinks are stalling progress. “The opposition doesn’t represent anybody. They don’t want the Islamists to rule, even though the Islamists were elected legitimately.”

Many saw Saturday’s referendum less as a vote on a document than as a verdict on the president and his Islamist allies.

“The controversy is not about the constitution itself,” said Mohammed al-Gohary, a Brotherhood supporter who ran unsuccessfully for parliament last year. “The controversy is about who wrote the constitution — the Islamists.”

Walid Ennaihi, Sharaf al-Hourani and Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

by Griff Witte

and Stephanie McCrummen

CAIRO — A deeply polarized Egypt began voting Saturday 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.

On a chilly morning, lines began forming before polls opened at 8 a.m. and stretched along sidewalks and around corners to the gates of schools where soldiers and police stood guard. Voting appeared to be peaceful, though there were spirited arguments among Egyptians in line, debates that started out being about the draft charter but often ended on the broader question of whether President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist backers are trustworthy guardians of the revolution that ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

“I will vote no because there is too much authority for the president and women have no rights,” said Mahamud Afifi, 60, a retired military officer waiting in line at a polling station tucked into a block of apartment buildings in the Saeda Zeinab area of Cairo. “There’s going to be more sectarian divisions with people because of this charter, and for this I blame the president.”

“You should not call him the president, you should call him the prince!” interrupted Watani Abdel Wahed, 63, a hospital technician.

“You haven’t even read the constitution!” shouted Ashraf Amin, 50, a soccer coach standing near the two men, who said he would vote yes. Though he had concerns about certain articles in the draft charter, Amin said he trusted that Morsi would work with opposition forces to amend the document once it passed. Like many Egyptians, his main interest was getting beyond the turbulent transition phase.

“People are voting yes because they believe it’s the best for the country,” Amin said.

Voting was to take place across 10 provinces that include Cairo and most of Egypt’s other urban areas; the rest will vote next 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 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.

Vaguely worded charter

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.

Economic imperatives

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.”