A protester in Cairo shows his chained hands during a demonstration against… (Petr David Josek / Associated…)
CAIRO — Demonstrators clashed in Alexandria on Friday as Egyptians gathered across the nation in rival rallies on the eve of a referendum on a divisive draft constitution backed by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi.
Thousands of Islamists waved banners and flags in Cairo and other cities to support the proposed charter that has been criticized by secularists and civil rights groups for limiting personal freedoms and emphasizing Sharia law by allowing clerics to be consulted on legislation.
Scuffles broke out in the coastal city of Alexandria between Morsi supporters and youths protesting against the proposed constitution. At least 15 people were injured -- some by swords and sticks -- after an imam at a local mosque urged worshipers to vote “yes” in Saturday’s constitutional referendum, according to witnesses and media reports.
Opposition movements urged their followers to select “no” in the voting, which will last a week. The furor over the proposed constitution represents the nation’s worst political crisis since last year’s overthrow of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. The army has been called in to keep order and the country is dangerously balanced between the mainly secular opposition and Morsi and his politically dominant Muslim Brotherhood.
The opposition claims the drafting of the proposed constitution was rushed by an Islamist-dominated assembly after Morsi expanded his powers to prevent the courts from intervening to dissolve the assembly and stop the referendum. Dissident leaders say the document imposes the will of the Muslim Brotherhood and is not reflective of Egyptian society.
“This referendum in itself is void,” said Amr Dabees, a 22-year-old pharmacy student. “Even if we vote no, Morsi will use his powers to keep the same constituent assembly and it has no representation for opposition, minorities, or Christians. This is supposed to be a constitution for all. Morsi's encompassing powers are another problem.”
Many in the opposition have also called for the referendum to be postponed so the lengthy draft, which contains more than 230 articles, can be explained to a population of 82 million, at least 30% of which are illiterate.
Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, issued a statement urging Morsi to cancel the referendum, reach out to a diverse society and fix Egypt’s severe economic problems.
“I'm speaking on behalf of the people living in slums, who can't find food. They don't have water or even sanitized plumbing,” ElBaradei said. “They don't want to hear about [a] constitution. They care about having a place to live, finding a job, having health insurance and [caring for] their kids.”
He added: “This is about the failed politics of this country, and this constitution is a part of them.... We reject it because it is void because it does not represent us.”
But Morsi supporters in Cairo, some carrying black flags that read “No God But Allah,” chanted for implementation of Islamic law. Preachers in mosques across the country told their congregations to vote "yes" for the constitution.
Some analysts said the proposed referendum is expected to pass because the Brotherhood has a superior organizational network.
“Some secularists don't find this constitution secular enough,” said Gehad Haddad, a senior advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party. “Some Islamists don't find it Islamic enough because this constitution is a result of consensus.”
The ongoing struggle for the constitution has underlined the divide between the country's Islamist factions and liberal or moderate forces. Egypt, a society traditionally proud of its moderate culture, has been shaken by protests and clashes over the last three weeks. At least eight people have been killed and hundreds injured.
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Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo contributed to this report.