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A riot policeman restrains a rock-wielding protester Friday as opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clash with Islamist supporters of the President in Alexandria, Egypt. (AP)
A riot policeman restrains a rock-wielding protester Friday as opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clash with Islamist supporters of the President in Alexandria, Egypt. (AP)

Clashes erupt on eve of Egyptian referendum vote Add to ...

Islamists and anti-Islamist protesters clashed violently Friday in this ancient Mediterranean city on the eve of the second and final round of voting in a referendum that will confirm a contentious new constitution.

“Welcome to Egypt,” said a shopkeeper, as mobs of bearded young men rushed past his bathroom-fixture shop near the city’s main mosque. They were retreating under a hail of rocks thrown by anti-Islamist gangs and clouds of tear gas fired by police to keep the anti-Islamists at bay.

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Two young men, scarves wrapped around their terrified faces, were carried through the crowd. Described as “agents of the secularists,” they were taken to a small construction site where they were beaten savagely by the mob and bound in wire.

“You see: This is Islam,” said the shopkeeper disgustedly, drawing down the steel shutters of his shop. A secularist, he dares not reveal himself to the mob in the street.

Some 58 people were reported injured in the clashes, several of them rushed to hospital in serious condition, as fighting carried on into the evening before the critical vote.

The voting is taking place over two Saturdays because, the government said, there weren’t enough judges to monitor all polling stations across the country’s 27 governorates at the same time. A simple majority is all that is technically required to approve the new Islamist-written constitution. In the first half of the referendum, the charter received the support of about 57 per cent of the 8.1 million people who cast ballots. Opponents believe the draft is short on fundamental freedoms and long on Islamic principles.

On Friday, tens of thousands of Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and various Salafist groups gathered for midday prayers at the al-Qa’ed mosque just off the corniche in the centre of Alexandria.

They gathered, in the words of one of the preachers in the mosque, as “a show of strength for Islam and against the secularists who want to stop our Islamic project.”

“The people want the law of God,” the crowd shouted. “With our blood and souls we sacrifice for Islam.”

The gangs on the other side of the police cordon reacted with a chant of their own: “The people want the end of the regime.” It was a call made popular in the Arab uprisings early last year against regimes such as that of Hosni Mubarak. Now the call is directed at President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood authorities that are tightening their grip on Egypt.

Last Friday, hundreds of anti-Islamic protesters encircled the al-Qa’ed mosque, pelting with stones anyone trying to leave the building after prayers and trapping inside the 88-year-old Salafi imam and many of his followers for several hours.

The imam, Ahmed el-Mahalawy, thanked the Islamists for coming this Friday but urged them to “leave the way you came: in peace.”

Under assault by rock throwers, however, many fought back.

“Islam is the solution,” intoned a speaker from the Gamaa Islamiya, a radical Salafist group that renounced terrorism to run in parliamentary elections. “May anyone who opposes this be paralyzed,” he shouted over the loudspeakers.

As the Muslim Brotherhood nears its goal of a constitution sympathetic to Islam, and the opposition to it grows more desperate, the highly disciplined movement is resorting increasingly to tactics of intimidation to thwart its opponents.

Dissatisfied with the security police it suspects of being followers of the old regime, the Brotherhood let loose its own thugs recently to battle protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo, and reportedly sent them to attack the headquarters of other political parties.

When its hastily drafted constitution was about to be challenged by the Constitutional Courts, it dispatched a gang of followers to camp outside the courts, barring the judges from entering their chambers. They’ve been there for two weeks.

Viewing Egypt’s media as carriers of an anti-Islamic message, it enlisted Salafist colleagues to lay siege to a cluster of media groups’ headquarters, barring entry to personnel and slaughtering animals dressed as effigies of some of the most popular media personalities.

It is fascism, says Alaa el-Aswany, an Egyptian author and opposition figure. He describes the Brotherhood’s techniques as “a fascist, armed system that grants itself the power to gain its rights with force.”

With the passage of the proposed new constitution made certain with the voting Saturday, many in the opposition wonder what happens next.

Former foreign minister Amr Moussa, a leader of the opposition’s National Salvation Front, says he is not giving up the fight against an Islamic state.

He made it clear in an interview this week that he is not against the constitution as a whole, only some of the articles within it that “give licence to [the Islamists] to do what they want.”

Nor, Mr. Moussa said, does he challenge the legitimacy of Mr. Morsi’s presidency, though protesters in the streets constantly do.

“The President was democratically elected,” Mr. Moussa said, “and should leave only by democratic means.”

The opposition, Mr. Moussa insists, only wants amendments to the constitution and to let democracy run its course.

To that end, Mr. Morsi has invited opposition figures to discuss with him possible amendments to the contentious articles that might be made after the charter is passed as drafted.

“Dialogue is the best way forward,” says Montasser al-Zayyat, a lawyer for several Islamist organizations.

“It’s in the President’s own interest to make such changes,” he says. “He cannot ignore the substantial opposition to him and the constitution.”

The President deserves some of that criticism, Mr. al-Zayyat says. “He surrounded himself with Muslim Brotherhood people and their heavy-handed approach is making the Islamic project much less popular.”

Mr. Moussa says he is worried about the sincerity of the President’s offer. This week, officials in the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party seemed to contradict him, saying no amendments to the constitution would be possible for at least two years.

A parliamentary election is to be called within two months, and the popular Mr. Moussa, who placed a disappointing fifth in the presidential election in May, believes that will be the best opportunity the opposition has to show how unhappy the people are with the Islamists.

He admits, however, that opposition political parties lack organization and experience. “Regardless … the people will turn to those parties,” now that they have seen the Islamists in power.

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