CAIRO Egyptians decide on Saturday on a constitution promoted by its Islamist backers as the way out of a prolonged political crisis and rejected by opponents as a recipe for further divisions in the Arab world's biggest nation.
Voting begins in a referendum on a divisive draft basic law that has pitted Islamist supporters of President Mohamed Mursi against a liberal, secular and Christian opposition in often bloody clashes in Cairo and other cities.
The opposition says the constitution is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. Mursi's supporters say the charter is needed if progress is to be made towards democracy nearly two years after the fall of military strongman Hosni Mubarak.
In Alexandria on Friday, tensions boiled over into a street brawl between rival factions armed with clubs, knives and swords. Several cars were set on fire and a Muslim preacher who had urged people to vote "yes" to the constitution was trapped inside his mosque by angry opposition supporters.
In the capital, Cairo, both sides made low-key final efforts to rally supporters.
Flag-waving Islamists gathered peacefully at one of the main mosques, some shouting "Islam, Islam" and "We've come here to say 'yes' to the constitution".
Opposition supporters - who have been urged to vote "no" by their leaders - assembled outside the presidential palace.
The building remains ringed with police, soldiers and tanks after street clashes caused at least eight deaths earlier this month in violence prompted by Mursi's decision to award himself sweeping powers in order to ram through the new charter.
As darkness fell, there appeared to be more bystanders and street vendors present than opposition demonstrators. A woman addressed the crowd through a loudhailer, shouting obscenities about Mursi, but many in her audience seemed more interested in drinking tea or having their picture taken in front of a tank.
"I don't like Mursi," said Moustafa Ahmed, 25, a teacher. "But I haven't decided what to vote for tomorrow so I decided to come here to listen to the protesters and chat to them one last time."
TWO DAYS OF VOTING
The referendum will be held on two days - this Saturday and next - because there are not enough judges willing to monitor all polling stations after some in the judiciary said they would boycott the vote.
Egyptians are being asked to accept or reject a constitution that must be in place before a parliamentary election can be held next year - an event many hope can steer the country towards stability.
The measure is generally expected to pass, given the well-organised Muslim Brotherhood's record of winning elections since the fall of Mubarak. Many Egyptians, tired of turmoil, may simply fall in line and vote "yes".
If the constitution is voted down, a new assembly will have to be formed to draft a revised version, a process that could take up to nine months.
Just over half of Egypt's electorate of 51 million will vote in the first round in Cairo and other cities. Polling stations open at 8 a.m. (6:00 a.m. British time) and close 12 hours later.
Official results will not be announced until after the second round, though it is likely that details will emerge after the first round that will give an idea of the overall trend.
To provide security for the vote, the army has deployed about 120,000 troops and 6,000 tanks and armoured vehicles to protect polling stations and other government buildings
While the military backed Mubarak and his predecessors, it has not intervened on either side in the present crisis.
The charter has been criticised by some overseas bodies.
The International Council of Jurists, a Geneva-based human rights group, said it falls short of international standards on the accountability of the armed forces, the independence of the judiciary, and recognition of human rights.
United Nations human rights experts said the draft should be reviewed to ensure that Egypt meets its obligations under international law on equality and women's rights.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Fahm and Abdel Rahman Youssef in Alexandria; Writing by Giles Elgood; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)