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Egypt’s vote is stressful but calm

Heavy turnout suggests a turn toward stability

A woman carrying her daughter complained to electoral staff at a polling station in Cairo on Saturday.

DANIEL BEREHULAK/GETTY IMAGES

A woman carrying her daughter complained to electoral staff at a polling station in Cairo on Saturday.

CAIRO — Egyptians voted peacefully and in large numbers on Saturday in a referendum on an Islamist-backed draft constitution, hoping that the results would end three weeks of violence, division, and distrust between the Islamists and their opponents over the ground rules of Egypt’s promised democracy.

By midmorning, long lines had formed outside polling stations around the country. Military officers were on hand to ensure security.

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Despite a new outbreak of fighting over the charter in Alexandria the day before and opposition warnings of chaos, the streets of the capital, Cairo, were free of major protests for the first time in weeks. By 9 p.m., lines were still long and election authorities had extended polling hours to 11 p.m.

The vote on a new constitution appeared to be yet another turning point for Egypt’s nearly two-year-old revolution. After weeks of violence and threats of a boycott, the strong turnout and orderly balloting suggested a turn toward stability, if not the liberalism some revolutionaries had hoped for.

Regardless of the outcome of the vote, to be completed next Saturday, widespread participation provided the political process with a degree of credibility, pulling Egypt back from the brink of civil discord.

It remained to be seen whether the losing side would accept the result, and many Egyptians may have cast ballots mainly out of a desire to end the political bedlam, but the election was expected to bolster the government’s legitimacy and solidify the power of President Mohammed Morsi.

While they waited in line to cast their ballots, some Egyptians said their nation’s new Islamist leaders had unfairly steamrollered the charter over the objections of other parties and the Coptic Christian Church, and that as a result the new charter failed to protect fundamental rights.

Others blamed the Islamists’ opponents for refusing to negotiate in an effort to undermine democracy because they could not win at the ballot box. Many expressed discontent with political leaders on both sides.

‘‘Neither group can accept its opposition,’’ said Ahmed Ibrahim, 40, a government clerk waiting to vote in a middle-class neighborhood in the Nasr City area of Cairo. Whatever the outcome, he said, ‘‘one group in their hearts will feel wronged, and the other group will gloat over their victory, and so the wounds will remain.’’

The referendum on a new constitution once promised to be a day when Egyptians realized their visions of democracy, pluralism, and national unity that defined the 18-day-revolt against then-President Hosni Mubarak.

But then came nearly two years of a chaotic political transition, in which Islamists, liberals, leftists, the military, and the courts all jockeyed for power over an ever-shifting timetable.

The document that Egyptians voted on was a rushed revision of the old Mubarak charter, faulted by many international experts as a missed opportunity stuffed with broad statements about Egyptian identity but riddled with loopholes regarding the protection of rights.

Worse still, for many, was the polarizing endgame battle that the charter provoked. Leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group allied with Morsi, said more than 35 of its offices around the country, including its Cairo headquarters, had been attacked and vandalized over the last three weeks. A night of street clashes between his Islamist supporters and their opponents killed at least 10.

Many voters waiting in line said they rejected the exploitation of the emotional issue of religion by both sides: the Islamists who sought to frame the debate over the constitution as a debate over Islamic law, and opponents who accused Morsi and his Islamist allies of laying the groundwork for a theocracy.

‘‘It is not about these emotional issues,’’ said Talan Hassaballah, a businessman waiting to vote in the Nasr City neighborhood. ‘‘I am going to vote no, but not because I disagree with the Muslim Brotherhood or the president.’’

Like most who said they would vote against the proposed constitution, he faulted its provisions on issues of ‘‘social justice,’’ like guarantees of human rights, workers’ rights, and social services.

“They are vague,’’ he said.

Tensions with Egypt’s Christians, believed to make up about 10 percent of the population, were particularly critical during the debate. Ultraconservative Islamist satellite networks often faulted angry Christians for provoking violence, and many Christians were shocked that Islamist leaders of the constitutional assembly had pushed the draft through after the official representatives of the Coptic Church had withdrawn in protest.

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