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Egypt referendum dispute triggers protest call

By AFP - Dec 17,2012 - Last updated at Dec 17,2012

CAIRO — Egypt’s opposition is calling for mass protests on Tuesday over alleged polling violations after Islamists backing President Mohamed Morsi claimed victory in the first round of a referendum on a new charter.

The opposition coalition, the National Salvation Front, urged Egyptians to “take to the streets on Tuesday to defend their freedoms, prevent fraud and reject the draft constitution” ahead of the next round of voting on Saturday.

It claimed “irregularities and violations” marred the initial stage of the referendum last weekend across half of Egypt that Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood said resulted in a 57 per cent “yes” vote, according to its unofficial tally.

The official count will be announced only after the other half of the country goes to the polls in the second round.

Mohammad Baradei, the front’s coordinator and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, renewed his call for Morsi to cancel the referendum and enter talks with the opposition.

“Last chance: Cancel the ill-reputed referendum and begin a dialogue to close the rift, and [appoint] a capable government that can administer, and bring back the state of law,” he wrote on Twitter.

A spokesperson for Baradei’s group said the comment was not a call to boycott the second round.

Large protests both for and against the proposed constitution have been staged over the past three weeks, sparking several violent clashes and revealing deep divisions in Egyptian society over Morsi’s rule.

Early this month, eight people died and more than 600 were hurt when rival protesters fought outside the presidential palace in Cairo, prompting the army to deploy troops and tanks to protect it.

Some 250,000 soldiers and police have been mobilised to ensure security during the two-stage referendum.

The opposition says the constitution weakens human rights, especially those of women, and undermines the independence of judges while strengthening the hand of the military.

It fears Islamists propelled into power after a revolution last year that toppled the 30-year regime of Hosni Mubarak want to establish Sharia-style laws.

Morsi, though, argues that the majority support he won in June presidential elections gives him a mandate for change and that the draft constitution is a key step to securing stability.

In an English-language statement issued last Thursday, the presidency said it was confronted by “anti-revolutionary forces”, but offered talks with the opposition to agree amendments to the constitution.

Many analysts believe that the lack of consensus over the draft constitution is dragging Egypt into a prolonged political conflict.

Ahmed Abdelrabu, a professor of political science at Cairo University, said the current situation “reflects a state of I, don’t want to say lack of trust of the Islamic movements, but a distance from them”.

He predicted the “yes” vote would grow in the next round of the referendum because many people in the more conservative south of Egypt would be going to the polls.

In the run-up to the final round, he said: “I think it’s possible that some clashes or incidents might happen.”

The opposition claims that last Saturday’s first round of the referendum, which took place in the biggest cities of Cairo and Alexandria and in eight other regions, had numerous violations.

Those included monitors not being allowed into some polling stations, judges not present in all as required and some fake judges employed, and women prevented in some cases from casting their ballot.

Several Egyptian human rights and monitoring groups said on Sunday that the irregularities meant the first round should be re-run.

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