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High turnout in crucial Egyptian charter vote

Voters showed up in large numbers in most of the 17 Egyptian provinces on Saturday to vote in the final round of a referendum on a draft constitution. The Islamists are confident that the constitution will be approved.

Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Qandil shows his ink-stained finger after casting his vote in the final stage of a referendum on Egypt's new constitution in El Dokki district of greater Giza, south of Cairo, December 22, 2012. Egyptians voted on a constitution drafted by Islamists on Saturday in a second round of balloting expected to approve the charter that opponents say will create deeper turmoil in Egypt. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh (EGYPT - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Ägypten Referendum Abstimmung Verfassung

Queues stretched outside polling stations in Giza, near Cairo; the port city of Port Said; and Luxor, in southern Egypt, as Islamists and the opposition made last-minute efforts to woo voters.

"I read the constitution. It has several good issues such as articles guaranteeing care for the poor," a veiled female voter in Giza, who gave her name only as Souad, told news agency DPA. "I hope things will settle and the country becomes stable after the referendum."

Backers and opponents of the charter, drafted by an Islamist-led assembly, have fought street battles over the draft, raising fears that the country could slide into a civil war, and thousands of soldiers and policemen were deployed across the electoral districts to ensure order.

"They should have distributed copies of the constitution to us so that we would be better aware of what we are voting on," said Dina, a voter, who was waiting at a women-only polling station in Giza. "I have formed my opinion depending on what I heard on TV," she added.

"I'm voting 'no' because Egypt can't be ruled by one faction," Karim Nahas, a stockbroker heading to a polling station in Giza, told Reuters.

More than 25 million Egyptians were eligible voters in Saturday's round, which was under way in areas considered to be broadly conservative, meaning a yes vote was expected to prevail.

About 57 per cent of those who voted in the first round of the referendum, on December 15, approved the document, according to unofficial results.

The opposition claims that the first round was marred by massive irregularities, an allegation denied by the electoral commission.

Islamists confident

President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies say the charter will fast-track the country's transition to democracy, from the authoritarian rule of president Hosni Mubarak, who was deposed almost two years ago. It will help restore the stability needed to fix an economy that is on the ropes, they say.

The opposition, meanwhile, says the constitution could undermine political rights and sideline minorities.

The main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front, has renewed its call for followers to turn out in large numbers to vote against the charter. However, Islamists appear confident of securing a clear vote in favour of the constitution.

Polling stations were due to close at 7 p.m., with balloting time expected to be extended to accomodate voters, as had happened in the first round. The final result is to be determined by the majority of the valid ballots cast in both rounds, according to the electoral commission. If the constitution is adopted, it will clear the way for legislative elections within 60 days. If the charter is voted down, an election will be called within three months to pick a new assembly to draft a new constitution.

Even if the charter is approved, the opposition say it is a recipe for trouble since it has not received broad consensus backing from the population. They say the result may go in Morsi's favour but it will not be the result of a fair vote.

"I see more unrest," said Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party and a member of the National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Morsi expanded his powers on November 22 and then pushed the constitution to a vote.

bk/jr (Reuters, dpa)