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Clashes erupt in Egypt on the eve of constitution vote

Supporters and opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clashed in Alexandria on the eve of a controversial constitution referendum. Voting is set to take place over the course of two separate days.

Dozens fought with clubs and swords, and several cars were set on fire on the streets of Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, on Friday.

Violence broke out after a cleric at a mosque in the city urged worshippers to vote in favor of the constitution.

In Cairo, flag-waving pro-Morsi Islamists staged a final rally on Friday, but the gathering outside one of the capital's main mosques remained peaceful.

Cairo and other cities have seen violent demonstrations over the past three weeks, where at least eight people have been killed, since President Morsi assumed sweeping new powers to push through the constitution.

Morsi later rescinded the decree but stopped short of cancelling the referendum.

The opposition is telling its supporters to vote "no" and has also threatened to boycott proceedings if guarantees for a fair vote are not met.

Polling on the referendum is being spread over two Saturdays due to a shortage of judges willing to provide the legal supervision for the vote.

Voting is scheduled to begin on Saturday in Cairo and Alexandria and in eight other provinces. The other half of the country is to vote a week later.

To provide security for the vote, about 120,000 troops and 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles are to be deployed. Earlier this week President Morsi granted the army powers of arrest in the run-up to the referendum, a decision which was protested.

A constitution must be in place before national elections can be held early next year.

The opposition has argued that, if ratified, the constitution would undermine human rights in the country, particularly regarding women and religious minorities. Despite opposition pressure, the measure is expected to pass.

The dispute has sparked Egypt's worst unrest since President Hosni Mubarak stepped down almost two years ago, as a result of weeks of mass protest against his rule.

"Insistence on referendum in an explosive, polarized, chaotic & lawless environment is leading country to the brink," opposition National Salvation Front leader Mohamed ElBaradei said on his Twitter feed.

The Front has said it could yet call a boycott if its "deep concern" over the referendum's fairness turns out to be founded.

International watchdogs, including the UN human rights chief, as well as the United States and the European Union, have also expressed reservations about the draft constitution.

Polls open on Saturday at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) and are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm (1700 GMT).

hc/kms (Reuters, AFP)