A little more than half of Egypt's electorate of 51 million are eligible to vote in the first round while rest would be able to vote in the next phase on Dec 22. The voting, which has so far been peaceful, is taking place in Cairo, Alexandria, Daqahliya, Gharbiya, Sharqiya, Assiut, Sohag, Aswan, North Sinai and South Sinai.
The run-up to the referendum saw deadly clashes between supports of the government and those against it. The vote on the disputed charter is seen by many experts as a choice between Egypt moving closer toward a religious state led by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafi bloc, or one that retains the secular traditions with an Islamic character.
"I cannot accept such a constitution which aims to trample the rights of the people. This will take Egypt back. The revolution that ousted Mubarak will go waste," said Mohamed Sabry here. The National Salvation Front of opposition groups organised demonstrations at the presidential palace and in Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square yesterday, after deciding to call on followers to vote "no" in the referendum, rather than a boycott.
Egypt has been in turmoil for nearly two years after the fall of strongman Hosni Mubarak. Egypt's Constituent Assembly on Nov 30 in a marathon session approved the draft constitution imposing Islamic values, a move opposed by Liberals as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech and religion in the country.
The articles passed, stipulated that Islam is the religion of the state, and the principles of Sharia, or Islamic law, are the "main source of legislation". Mursi then decided to hold a referendum on the controversial draft constitution on Dec 15, a move that sparked further outrage in the country.
Meanwhile, the National Salvation Front, in a statement, expressed "deep concern... over the number of irregularities and violations in the holding of the referendum," charging it "points to a clear desire for vote rigging by the Muslim Brotherhood."
Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood have campaigned heavily in favour of the draft document, which experts say may define Egypt for years to come. Opponents say it is poorly drafted and overly favours Islamists. The vote, which is staggered over a week, appears to be going smoothly with indications of a high turnout.
Some 250,000 security personnel, including soldiers and police, have been deployed to ensure peaceful referendum. Polling reportedly had to be spread out because few judges were willing to supervise the referendum but human rights groups have expressed fears the results from the first round could sway the opinion of those voting in the second, the BBC reported. A constitution must be in place before elections can be held early next year.
Statements from the country's High Elections Commission say that there are 7,000-10,000 judges supervising the polling. This is the fifth elections Egyptians have since the Jan 25 revolution, the first being the referendum on Mar 2011 constitutional declaration, then the People's Assembly elections in Nov and Dec 2011, the Shura Council elections in Jan and Feb 2012 and the presidential elections in May and Jun 2012.
Egyptians abroad, had already begun voting in the referendum on the new constitution. Voting was taking place at Egyptian embassies abroad, with more than 500,000 Egyptians expected to cast their votes in 150 countries.
The present political turmoil began after President Mursi granted himself absolute powers through a Nov 22 decree that had put his decisions beyond judicial review, a move which gained him titles like "dictator" and "Pharaoh". Mursi tried to calm protests by annulling the decree, but decided to go ahead with the referendum. Mursi has also issued a new decree giving police powers to the army to beef up security ahead of tomorrow's referendum.