AZIYAH, Egypt — Hymns echoing from the new church in this village in Egypt's southern heartland could be heard well after sundown Wednesday, a reminder of the jubilant mood as Aziyah's Christian residents vote on a new constitution.
Outside in the dusty streets, volunteers hurriedly arranged for buses to transport voters to polling stations before they closed. In past elections, Islamists used fear or intimidation to stop Christians from voting against them.
This time around, Aziyah's Christians faced no obstacles on their way to the ballot box.
"I cast my ballot as I pleased. I am not afraid of anybody," said Heba Girgis, a Christian resident of the nearby village of Sanabu, who said she was harassed and prevented from casting a vote against the 2012 Islamist-backed constitution. "Last time I wanted to say no. I waited in line for two hours before the judge closed the station."
"This time we said yes and our opinion matters," Girgis added as she walked home with a friend after casting her vote. "This is for our children, for all those who died and suffered. Our word now carries weight."
The busy winding alleys of Aziyah and other villages with large Christian populations in the southern province of Assiut were in sharp contrast to the dimmed streets and deserted polling stations of neighboring hamlets, mostly populated by supporters of ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi — a testimony to a boycott organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups against the military-supported constitution.
In Assiut, the birthplace of most of Egypt's Islamist groups, and neighboring Minya, the campaign was particularly strong against the charter, a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in 2012.
The new document would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. It also gives the military special powers to name its own candidate as defense minister for the next eight years and bring civilians before military tribunals.
During the two-day referendum, security and army troops deployed heavily in the south, where daily protests by Morsi supporters were particular violent.
More than 15,000 troops fanned out across the two provinces, and sandbags were erected outside a number of polling stations. There were frequent helicopter runs and flyovers by F-16 jets.