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Early results indicate resounding 'yes' on Egyptian constitution

Egyptians have overwhelmingly supported a new draft constitution, state media have reported. The referendum paves the way for presidential and parliamentary elections later this year.

More than 97 percent of voters backed the constitution, the state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported on Thursday citing initial returns. Official results are expected on Saturday.

Turnout for the two-day referendum

was at around 36 percent of Egypt's 53 million eligible voters, reported al-Ahram, slightly above the 33 percent of voters who went to the polls and approved the Islamist-drafted charter constitution under then-President Mohammed Morsi. The Interior Ministry, meanwhile, said turnout was significantly higher, putting the number at more than 55 percent.

"Early indications point to the fact that Egyptians made history this week with a high level of participation in the vote on the draft constitution," Egypt's spokesman for the presidency, Ehab Badawy, said in a statement.

Expected result

The draft charter, which was expected to be comfortably approved, forwards the transition plan of Egypt's interim government, which was appointed after Morsi was deposed in a military-backed coup last July.

"This vote represents a resounding rejection of terrorism and a clear endorsement of the roadmap to democracy, as well as economic development and stability," said Badawy.

The new constitution, which is devoid of the Islamist language contained in the 2012 charter passed under Morsi, grants increased powers to the military, police and judiciary. The government and its supporters called the referendum a key part of restoring Egypt to democracy. The country's interim leadership, however, appears to have left little room for dissent.

Following the coup, the government passed a law restricting protests, including secular demonstrations. In the run-up to the vote, both Islamist and secular protesters were arrested for campaigning against the referendum, including important figures of the 2011 revolution that toppled Hosni Mubarak.

Since Morsi's ouster, his followers - particularly the Muslim Brotherhood organization - have been the focus of a violent government crackdown. More than 1,000 of his followers have been killed in street clashes, while many of the Brotherhood's members have been arrested or forced underground. One student was killed Thursday in clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents.

'False referendum'

The Brotherhood-led National Alliance for Legitimacy Support, which has organized near-daily protests since the coup and boycotted this week's vote, rejected the referendum results.

"The coup plotters are deceiving themselves and the results of the false referendum will not lend them legitimacy," the alliance said in a statement.

Western governments have criticized the Egyptian government's crackdown on protesters. However, the US

appears set to pass a bill

that would unfreeze of the $1.5 billion in aid to the country if it can certify that Egypt "has held a constitutional referendum, and is taking steps to support a democratic transition."

Presidential and parliamentary elections are set to follow the constitution's approval. The leading candidate for Egypt's highest office is army chief General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the man widely seen as the architect of the coup against Morsi. Although he has not officially announced his intentions to run, Sissi has

indicated he would seek the presidency

by "popular demand."

dr/ph (dpa, Reuters, AP, AFP)

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