CAIRO — Egyptians turned out in large numbers Saturday to begin voting on a contentious draft constitution that has become a referendum on whether President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist backers are trustworthy guardians of the diverse revolution that ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.
Despite weeks of protests that have at times turned into bloody, rock-throwing brawls, voting appeared to be largely peaceful. Official results will not be announced until after voting ends Dec. 22.
Saturday seemed to be a day for debate and, to some extent, reveling in disagreements rather than coming to blows over them.
"I will vote no, because some of the articles are not in our best interest," said Nabil Aweys Khalifa, 56, an auto inspector waiting to vote in Zeinhom.
"This is your opinion!" interrupted Tamer Ali, 25, a chandelier-maker. "The government is good!"
"This is your opinion!" shouted a third man.
"See?" Khalifa said. "Now we have democracy."
The draft charter was passed by an Islamist-dominated assembly after many liberal, Christian and more moderate members walked out, saying their concerns about women's rights, free speech and other protections were being ignored. As the previous constitution did, the draft charter establishes Islam as the basis of legislation. But it also enshrines al-Azhar, the respected center of Sunni Muslim scholarship, as a nonbinding interpreter of Islamic law, possibly shifting power away from the courts.
Analysts say the constitution leaves some room for interpretation on rights. For instance, it enshrines a right to free speech but also makes it illegal to insult "an individual person." The charter establishes equality between men and women but contains a provision requiring the state to balance women's rights with their "obligations to family."
But many waiting in polling lines Saturday were less worried about those specifics than about the way Morsi and his Islamist supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party pushed the charter to a vote. On Nov. 22, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration — since rescinded — placing his actions beyond judicial review. Tens of thousands of protesters poured into the streets, calling Morsi an Islamist dictator in the making.
Morsi's decree protected the constitution-writing panel from dissolution by the country's highest court and allowed him to call the referendum.
Morsi cast his actions as necessary to overcome a Mubarak-era judiciary that was trying to block Egypt's democratically elected Islamist government from functioning. Opponents saw it as a power grab, and many who said they voted no on the draft charter cited a lack of trust in a government that would behave in such a manner.