Egyptians vote for constitution changes

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The Independent Online

Constitutional changes have been approved in Egypt's landmark referendum, with 77% of the vote in favour, according to final results released tonight.

The changes eliminate restrictions on political rights and open the way for parliamentary and presidential elections within months.

Opponents argued that the timeframe was too quick for political parties to organise.

Egypt's best organised political forces - the Muslim Brotherhood and members of the former ruling party - campaigned for passage.

The commission chief Ahmed Attiya said 41% of 45 million eligible voters cast ballots in yesterday's referendum.

More than 14 million - 77.2% - voted in favour, with around 4 million - 22.8% - opposed.

However the first test of Egypt's transition to democracy offered ominous hints of widening sectarian division, however.

Many were drawn to the polls in a massive, last-minute effort by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that is Egypt's largest and most coherent political organisation after the widely despised National Democratic Party of former president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last month in a national popular uprising.

Critics fear the Brotherhood and NDP will easily outpoll the dozens of political groups born out of the anti-Mubarak uprising, dividing power between former regime loyalists and supporters of a fundamentalist state - a nightmare scenario for Western powers and many inside Egypt.

Among those most fearful of the Brotherhood's rising power are Egypt's estimated eight million Coptic Christians, whose leaders rallied the faithful to vote "no".

The NDP is blamed for the rampant corruption and the fraud that marred every election during Mubarak's 29-year rule, and its members have been accused of attempting to disrupt Egypt's transition to democracy for fear of losing further power.

The Brotherhood, which has strongly campaigned for the adoption of the changes, advocates the instalment of an Islamic government in Egypt. The ambivalence of its position on what role women and minority Christians play under their hoped-for Islamic government - like whether they could run for president or be judges - worry large segments of society.