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Officials count ballots after polls closed in Zagazig, about 60 kilometres northeast of Cairo December 15, 2012. Egyptians queued in long lines on Saturday to vote on a constitution promoted by its Islamist backers as the way out of a political crisis and rejected by opponents as a recipe for further divisions in the Arab world's biggest nation.


Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers eked out a narrow win in the first round of voting on a controversial new constitution this weekend, but the results only threaten to further divide this riven nation.

Unofficial counts indicate that the Islamist-written charter received the support of about 57 per cent of the 8.1 million people who cast ballots in the first half of the referendum. More than 43 per cent voted against the document.

"If the goal was to restore stability, you can forget about it," said political analyst Saeed Sadek, predicting a return to street protests and civil disobedience.

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"The results just confirm how badly divided this country is. I see no end in sight to the troubles."

All eyes now turn to the second and final round of voting to be conducted Saturday, with the big prize being the heavily populated Giza governorate on the west bank of the Nile, across from Cairo.

Voting was scheduled over two days 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 constitution.

Most governorates in rural parts of the country supported the new constitution with about 75 per cent of the vote, according to unofficial figures published Sunday by Egyptian media and tallied by Muslim Brotherhood observers.

The urban vote, however, was a different story. In Alexandria, Egypt's second largest city, 56 per cent voted in favour of the constitution, with 44 per cent opposed, while in Cairo, the most populous centre, 57 per cent voted against the new charter. That, said Prof. Sadek, shows that Mr. Morsi has little support among the country's "intelligentsia."

If the constitution clears next week's hurdle and becomes law, elections for a new parliament are to take place within two months. That is when there will be a return to the political competition between the Muslim Brotherhood and the more fundamentalist Salafists. The alliance between the two camps of Islamists was only intended to ensure passage of the constitution, Salafists say.

Before that, Mr. Morsi is expected to sign on to a $4.8-billion (U.S.) loan from the International Monetary Fund, one that requires Egypt to raise taxes in some politically sensitive areas, such as cellphones and cigarettes, a move likely to make him more unpopular than ever.

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The Cairo stock exchange's benchmark index rose to a three-week high Sunday in apparent hope of a return to economic normality. But with the mixed messages coming from this constitutional referendum, normality is likely to be a long way off.

Even among those who did support the constitution, many did so despite its religious orientation, not because of it, said political commentator Najeh Ibrahim, a founder of the radical Gamaa Islamiya organization in the 1980s. "They voted for it because they hated the absence of law and order and the downfall of the economy," he said. "They just want a return to normalcy."

"These results mean the Muslim Brotherhood is losing [ground]," said Dr. Ibrahim, a physician, who served 24 years in prison for his Islamist activities.

"If it weren't for the mobilization of the Islamic movements in total – not just the Salafis, but the Gamaa Islamiya in Upper Egypt and Sunni backers all over the country – the constitution wouldn't have passed at all."

Voting itself went off relatively smoothly Saturday, although long lineups necessitated an extension of voting time by four hours, to 11 p.m.

While the Giza governorate includes some wealthy neighbourhoods where supporters of ousted president Hosni Mubarak are likely to vote against the new constitution, the area is dominated by the sprawling, poor city of Giza, itself, where Islamists have a great deal of influence.

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Secularists and liberal Muslims along with many Christians object to the loose support for basic freedoms found in the document's 236 articles, and worry that it allows for a greater Islamic interpretation of many statutes, including criminal laws, such as being able to legislate that marrying an adolescent woman is legal or that flogging is a legal punishment.

Representatives of these groups walked out of the constituent assembly in November, arguing the body was not properly representative, leaving it mostly to the Islamists to draft the document.

Mr. Morsi, in particular, is viewed increasingly as a loser. Besieged in his palace for much of the past two weeks, with the walls of his compound covered in graffiti, he seems unable to control the situation.

The President's tendency to take serious decisions, only to retract them a few days or sometimes hours later when under pressure, has spawned numerous jokes and comical images. A popular one online depicts Mr. Morsi as a china doll – rub his tummy and he'll make an announcement; slap him in the head and he'll retract it.

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