Egyptians are voting on a constitution staunchly supported by Islamists but bitterly opposed by those who say it would undermine human rights. If it is voted down, the process of drafting a new charter will start afresh.
Egyptians started casting their ballots on Saturday in the first round of a referendum on a controversial constitution that has polarized the country and prompted people to take to the streets in protest.
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.
The first round of voting began on Saturday in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other regions. Polls opened at 8 a.m. (0600 GMT) and are to close at 7 p.m. (1700 GMT). Around 25.8 million Egyptians are eligible to vote in the first round.
To provide security for the vote, about 120,000 troops and 6,000 tanks and armored vehicles have been deployed. Earlier this week President Mohamed Morsi granted the army powers of arrest in the run-up to the referendum, a decision which was strongly criticized.
The other half of the country is to vote next Saturday. Seventeen provinces will vote in the second round.
The final result will depend on the majority of valid votes cast in both rounds, the electoral commission said. No date has yet been provided for the announcement of the result.
If the draft constitution is rejected, President Morsi will have to call a vote within three months to elect a new constituent assembly and start the process of drafting a constitution all over again. A constitution must be in place before national elections can be held - as soon as early next year.
A divided nation
The draft constitution, which was drawn up by an Islamist-dominated assembly, has polarized Egyptians. President Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups fiercely back the document, and argue that it is crucial to speeding up Egypt's political transition away from authoritarianism.
The opposition counters that, if ratified, the constitution would undermine human rights in the country, particularly regarding women and religious minorities.
The dispute has sparked Egypt's worst unrest since former 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 United Nations human rights chief, as well as the United States and the European Union, have also expressed reservations about the draft constitution.
sej/pfd (dpa, Reuters, AFP)