Egyptian Islamists and opposition supporters clashed in Alexandria on the eve of the final round of voting on the country’s new constitution, which appears to be heading for approval.
Police sprayed tear gas as they sought to break up skirmishes between rival groups of Islamists and demonstrators supporting the “no” campaign outside the Al Qaed Ibrahim mosque in the coastal city, Al Jazeera reported. The channel aired images of black smoke rising above the skyline as night fell. After nearly two hours of street battles that the Health Ministry said injured 32 people, the area was mostly cleared, according to the online news agency Ahram Gate.
Fighting broke out in Alexandria before the first phase of the referendum last week after a preacher urged worshipers to vote “yes” during his sermon. Opposition protesters besieged him in the mosque until he was rescued by an armored vehicle. Today’s rally is to protest “aggression on the houses of God and the besieging of scholars,” Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said by phone yesterday.
President Mohamed Mursi’s efforts to push the constitution through and expand his own powers have led to weeks of protests and sometimes deadly clashes. Supporters of the charter argue that it will help stabilize the country and boost economic recovery. Critics say it was drafted by Islamists, won’t protect basic rights and is opposed by enough Egyptians to make it unrepresentative.
“Given that the president appears to be forging ahead with political changes, including the charter, with little regard for the opposition, it does not bode well for Egypt’s transition,” Said Hirsh, head of economics at Maplecroft, a risk adviser based in the U.K., said in response to e-mailed questions. “Regardless of whether the constitution is adopted or not, Egypt is a set for a turbulent year.”
Unofficial counts showed the charter was endorsed by 57 percent to 43 percent in the first phase. Giza, Menoufiya and 15 other provinces are due to vote tomorrow.
Egypt’s benchmark stock index rose for a third week, adding 5.4 percent after the initial vote passed without violence in much of the country. The pound was little change after sliding the previous week when Egypt postponed a loan accord with the International Monetary Fund.
About 33 percent of eligible voters cast ballots in the first round, according to state media, down from a 41 percent national turnout in a referendum in March last year on temporary changes to the constitution.
“To vote ‘no’ is to take a position against the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to take over this country and dominate its fate,” the National Salvation Front, an umbrella group for opposition, said in a statement. The Front has demanded the vote be postponed.
The opposition bloc and several rights groups say the first round of voting was marred by irregularities, prompting Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki to order an investigation.
“If others respect the democracy that they talk about and respect the will of the people, then they must stop the chaos they are stirring now,” the Brotherhood’s Ghozlan said. Adopting the constitution “will lay the foundation for the democratic transformation and for parliamentary elections” so the country “can relatively stabilize.”
Yasser El-Shimy, Middle East analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said he expects the “yes” margin to widen in the second round as the two main cities Cairo and Alexandria, where opposition support is strongest, voted last week.
The political turmoil threatens to set back Egypt’s efforts to consolidate democracy and rebuild the economy after the uprising last year that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Mursi, who became Egypt’s first freely elected civilian leader when he won a presidential vote in June, last week postponed Egypt’s application for a $4.8 billion IMF loan.
“Given his recent moves on the political front, President Mursi has made his job of implementing economic reforms particularly difficult,” Hirsh said. “There may will be further delays as the government finds it difficult to comply with conditions, or the IMF loses confidence in its ability to deliver on its promises.”