CAIRO — A deeply polarized Egypt was poised Friday to vote in a referendum that is likely to give the country a new constitution, but that risks provoking greater turmoil after weeks of jousting between onetime revolutionary allies.
With voting due to begin today, the Islamists who back the draft charter and the loose coalition of liberals, leftists and Christians who oppose it were scrambling Friday to mobilize supporters. Balloting will take place over two days, with the second round on Dec. 22, because there are not enough judges available to monitor the voting at all the polling places.
Most analysts said the superior organization of the Muslim Brotherhood would probably deliver a victory for President Mohammed Morsi, who was a longtime leader of the Islamist movement and has called on Egyptians to approve the document, which was largely drafted by his allies.
But few here believe that the vote will do anything to heal the political divisions that have exploded into deadly street clashes in recent days. On Friday, protesters armed with swords and stones battled in Alexandria, and at least 19 people were injured. Rival demonstrations in Cairo were tense but relatively peaceful.
The prospect of a "yes" vote on the charter has particularly enraged the young, secular Egyptians who were at the heart of the revolution early last year that drove out President Hosni Mubarak. Since Mubarak fell, they have been consistently outmaneuvered by the Islamists, who belatedly joined them in the streets during the revolution.
Islamists have triumphed in parliamentary and presidential votes, and a third win is likely to further sour secular revolutionaries on the democratic process they fought and died for just less than two years ago. At an opposition protest Friday, many were calling the vote illegitimate and promising to continue their campaign in the streets, regardless of what happens with the referendum.
"They are very active and very angry and very ready to use violence," said Hassan Abu Taleb, an analyst at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
He noted that Islamists, too, are angry and feel that the democratically elected leader is being unfairly maligned by demonstrators who have set up camp outside the presidential palace.
The draft constitution is the product of a rushed and contentious process from which non-Islamists withdrew in protest. Critics say the draft contains enough vaguely worded articles that it could allow Morsi and his allies to introduce a much larger role for religion in the affairs of the state. In particular, detractors say they are concerned about the lack of protections for women and religious minorities.