Egyptian voters overwhelmingly back new constitution, official says

A majority of Egyptians who voted on a new constitution have backed the draft charter, a senior Egyptian official said Thursday.

The official told The Associated Press that unofficial results, after most of the ballots have been counted, indicate that more than 90 percent of the voters have said "yes" to the constitution.

He declined to give an estimate on the final turnout and spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.

According to Reuters, Al-Ahram, the state's flagship newspaper, said the constitution was approved by an "unprecedented majority," citing early results.

The vote held Tuesday and Wednesday is a milestone for Egypt's interim government, installed by the military after the ouster last July of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.

A decree is expected within days, setting the date for presidential and parliamentary elections, Reuters reported, citing Al-Ahram. The official result is expected to be announced on Saturday.

The draft is also a key piece of a political roadmap toward new elections for a president, and a test of public opinion about the coup that removed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood. It is a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.

Morsi's Brotherhood boycotted the referendum while the country's second-largest Islamist group, the ultraconservative Salafis, also stayed away from the polls in response to a crackdown against Islamists that included confiscation of their assets, shutdown of their TV networks and the banning of their top clerics from preaching in mosques.

This left traditional Islamist strongholds across Egypt seeing only a trickle of voters during the two-day balloting.

By contrast, and raising the prospects of a continued polarization among Egyptians, long lines formed outside polling stations in major urban areas and big cities, with crowds brandishing posters of the country's military chief, chanting in support of the army and women ululating.

Such patriotic outbursts followed an intense campaign by the government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media, which portrayed the balloting as key to the nation's security and stability.

Nine people were killed during clashes on the first day of voting. Thursday, students rallied outside the campus of the University of Cairo and fought with security forces. Police fired tear gas, pushing the students back.

In the weeks before the vote, hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards urged Egyptians to vote "yes" in the referendum and people were arrested for posters and campaigns calling for a "no" vote.

The current interim government is looking for a big "yes" majority and large turnout to win undisputed legitimacy and perhaps a popular mandate for the military chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, to run for president later this year. But silencing dissent has raised questions about the legitimacy of the process.

El-Sissi has yet to say outright whether he plans to seek the nation's highest office, but his candidacy appears increasingly likely every day.

El-Sissi is wildly popular among his supporters and appears the only serious candidate, Reuters reported.

"I believe this is the most convenient time for Sisi to make an announcement if he has the intention to run," Mohamed Qadri Said, a retired army general who works at the state's Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, told Reuters.

"I do not see anyone else running against him. He has done great things to the country and the people like him."

Following the referendum, Egypt's Interim President Adly Mansour is expected to also announce changes in the roadmap, scheduling presidential elections before the vote for the next parliament, a switch from the initial plan. This could give Egypt a new president before the summer.

Many Egyptians saw the vote as a deadly blow to the Muslim Brotherhood and political Islam, whose parties have dominated the past five polls since the 2011 ouster of longtime authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. In the past three years, the Islamists swept the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections, and seemed to have positioned themselves as the country's rulers for decades.

The privately-owned "The Seventh Day" daily ran a mock, front-page death certificate for the Brotherhood, listing cause of death as "political stupidity and betrayal."

The text also gave the location for the burial -- "ballot boxes."

The stock market has rallied to three-year highs this week, driven partly by hopes for more stable government, Reuters reported.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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