ALEXANDRIA, Egypt – Thousands of Islamists clashed with their opponents Friday in Egypt's second largest city, Alexandria, on the eve of the second leg of voting on the country's contentious constitution that has deeply polarized the nation.
The two sides hurled rocks and stones at each other in the Mediterranean port city, prompting police to fire tear gas to separate them. Volleys of tear gas containers fell into the sea as security forces cordoned off the crowds to prevent further clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood members and ultraconservative Salafis on one side, and groups of young protesters on the other.
It was not immediately clear who started the fight, which added to the already tense political crisis over the draft charter.
The Islamists had called for a massive rally Friday outside the Qaed Ibrahim main mosque in the heart of Alexandria. About 20 political parties had issued a joint statement, saying they would not hold a rival rally in the city to avoid clashes.
Security forces cordoned off streets leading to the mosque as throngs of mostly long-bearded Salafi Islamists gathered for what they called "the million-man rally to defend clerics and mosques." Islamists chanted "God is Great," and warned opponents, "with blood and soul, we redeem Islam."
The rally was called in response to last week's violence, when a well-known Alexandria preacher and ultraconservative Salafi cleric, Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi, was trapped inside a mosque for 12 hours while his supporters battled rock-throwing opponents outside with swords and firebombs.
El-Mahalawi, 87, stirred anger with a sermon last Friday in which he denounced opponents of the Islamist-friendly draft charter as "followers of heretics" -- something he denied in a sermon on Friday, accusing media instead of spreading "lies."
He claimed that last week's clashes were meant to prevent the voting from taking place.
"The real goal here is for the referendum not to take place," he said Friday, adding that his backers had been ready with "teams of people equipped with all facilities to end the siege on the mosque" but he held them back because Salafis "don't want to shed blood."
The referendum on the constitution is to be completed Saturday with voting in the remaining 17 of Egypt's 27 provinces. The first round was held in 10 provinces last Saturday, including in Egypt's biggest cities, Cairo and Alexandria.
Rights groups and opposition filed complaints of vote violations after last week's voting. Turnout was low, around 32 percent, and unofficial results showed the Islamists' "yes" vote getting 56 percent of the ballots.
Controversy over the new constitution has in the past month plunged Egypt into political turmoil unprecedented since the February 2011 ouster of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime authoritarian and secular-minded ruler.
The draft has split the country into two camps. On one side are the Islamists from the country's most organized group, The Muslim Brotherhood, from which President Mohammed Morsi hails, and their backers from various ultraconservative Salafi and former Jihadist groups.
The other camp is the opposition, led by the National Salvation Front. It's an alliance of liberal parties and youth groups that is backed by Christians and moderate Muslims who fear Brotherhood's attempts to monopolize power by passing a constitution that enshrines a greater role for clerics and Islamic Shariah law.
Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from the two camps have taken to the streets and city centers over the past month to rally for their side. The crisis peaked when the two camps clashed as Brotherhood supporters attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Dec. 5. The violence left at least 10 dead and hundreds of injured on both sides.
The crisis was compounded by Morsi's decision to rush the draft constitution to a referendum after an Islamist-dominated panel approved it, as well as his move last month to grant himself near-absolute powers, which were later rescinded.
The moves have also split state institutions. The judiciary became another battleground, with the powerful Judges' Club calling on its members to boycott the vote while Brotherhood sympathizers in the legal system and other independents insisted on supervising the vote.
Egyptian prosecutors held a sit-in protest to press Morsi-appointed prosecutor general Talaat Abdullah to resign on Monday. Abdullah resigned, then retracted his resignation on Thursday, raising the prospect of new protests by fellow prosecutors.
Also, Zaghloul el-Balshi, the secretary general of the election committee who is also a judge and an aid to the country's justice minister, resigned Wednesday, citing health reasons. The media said his resignation was prompted by his inability to prevent vote violations in the first leg of the referendum.