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Updated Monday, December 17, 2012 at 06:05 AM

Egypt Islamists claim majority in vote on charter

By HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press

A narrow majority of Egyptians who voted in the first round of a referendum on a proposed Islamist-backed constitution have approved the document, according to unofficial tallies compiled by the Muslim Brotherhood and released early Sunday.

An official tweet by the Brotherhood, Egypt's most powerful political group, said its tallies showed nearly 57 percent of voters said "yes" to the disputed charter, while about 43 percent voted `no.' The vote was held on Saturday in 10 of the country's 27 provinces, including Cairo and the Mediterranean port city of Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city.

Voting in the remaining provinces will be held Dec. 22.

The Brotherhood, from which President Mohammed Morsi hails, has in the past accurately predicted election results. It said some 32 percent of over 26 million registered voters participated in Saturday's poll. Egypt's remaining 25 million voters, mostly from conservative rural regions, cast ballots next week.

If the constitution is approved by a simple majority of voters, the Islamists empowered after the overthrow of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak would likely gain more clout. The upper house of parliament, dominated by Islamists, would be given the authority to legislate until a new lower house is elected.

If the draft proposal is rejected, elections would be held within three months for a new panel to write a new constitution. In the meantime, legislative powers would remain with Morsi, who won the presidency with a narrow election victory in June.

The official website of Egypt's state television showed that 68 and 72 percent of voters cast "no" ballots in Cairo and Alexandria respectively. The only other two provinces where the "no" vote was the majority were Gharbiyah and Daqahliya in the Nile Delta, north of Cairo.

The Brotherhood and other Islamists enjoy wide support in most of the 17 provinces voting on Dec. 22, something that could raise the overall "yes" vote percentage to higher levels. But the Islamists led by the Brotherhood are widely thought to have lost some of their popularity because of the perception that Morsi and the Islamist-backed government of Prime Minister Hesham Kandil have failed to resolve any of the country's problems, like unemployment, rising prices and security.

Worse still, Egyptians are bracing for a wide range of steep price hikes as part of the government's program to boost revenues and restructure the economy to secure a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Yesterday's vote capped a near two-year struggle over Egypt's identity since the ouster of longtime leader Mubarak, with the latest crisis over the charter evolving into a dispute over whether Egypt should move toward a religious state under Morsi's Brotherhood and their ultraconservative Salafi allies, or one that retains secular traditions and an Islamic character.

Underlining the tension, some 120,000 army troops were deployed to help the police protect polling stations and state institutions after clashes between Morsi's supporters and opponents over the past three weeks left at least 10 people dead and about 1,000 wounded.

There were no serious incidents of violence during Saturday's vote. Although there was no evidence of mass fraud, monitors from the opposition and rights groups said the boycott of the referendum by most judges was reflected in the chaos prevailing in some polling centers.

The violations reported by monitors included polling centers collecting votes without judges to oversee the process, civil employees illegally replacing the judges, ballot papers not officially stamped as per regulations, campaigning inside polling stations and Christian voters being turned away.

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-Associated Press reporter Maggie Michael contributed to this report.


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