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Egypt votes in final round of controversial draft constitution

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By Ben Brumfield and Amir Ahmed, CNN

(CNN) — Across the river from Cairo, in its twin city of Giza, voters stood in line for blocks Saturday in the second round of balloting on the country’s controversial draft constitution.

At one women-only polling station, lines snaked for about a kilometer.

Victory appears likely for Egypt’s controversial document once the referendum is complete.

The first round of polling last week included more liberal provinces — Cairo for example — and produced an unofficial result of 56.6% in favor of the national charter, according to the ruling Freedom and Justice Party.

Giza residents are considered more conservative than their compatriots across the Nile, and they are not alone.

They are expected to return an even higher number of ballots in favor of the proposed national charter, which was formulated by Islamists supporting embattled President Mohamed Morsy.

More than 6,700 polling stations in 17 provinces opened their doors in the morning to nearly 26 million potential voters. Polls are expected to close them at 7 p.m. local time, according to Egyptian state-run media.

Many of the provinces voting in the second round include popular tourist destinations such as Luxor, the Red Sea and, of course, Giza.

Deep friction in Egypt’s society and institutions has accompanied the draft constitution since its inception and continues.

For a second week, clashes broke out Friday in the coastal Mediterranean city of Alexandria when Muslim Brotherhood protesters in support of a local imam and Morsy were met by opposition demonstrators.

Stones hurtled in the air, leaving 77 injured, according to official news agency Egynews. Riot police got between the marauding groups and fired tear gas, according to state-run Nile TV.

Last week’s confrontation was triggered by the imam’s call urging demonstrators to back the draft constitution.

The big turnout in Alexandria — Egypt’s second most populous city and a stronghold of conservative Muslims — appears to have made a big difference in tilting the preliminary results toward a ‘yes’ vote, Freedom and Justice Party members said.

Voting has been tainted by allegations of widespread abuses leveled by a coalition of 123 local rights groups that monitored last week’s voting. The nation’s electoral commission has said it will investigate the complaints of voter intimidation, bribery and other violations.

Turnout has burgeoned both weeks and led to the extension of polling by four hours in the first round. Security has been tight, and polling has proceeded peacefully.

Each station will count its votes after closing and hand in its official tally immediately to the Supreme Electoral Commission, according to state news agency MENA.

Once the sum of votes is taken, the commission will publicize the total results from both rounds in a news conference at a yet unannounced time.

Critics of the draft constitution feel it was passed too quickly. Liberals, Christians and other minority opposition groups feel like they were excluded from the Constituent Assembly and that the wording does not include their voices. They want a new assembly.

Opposition members are suspicious the charter uses vague language and will not guarantee the rights of the people that Egyptians fought for during a revolution that unseated President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

Supporters of the draft constitution herald what they say is its protection of personal rights, especially its provisions on handling of detainees in the judicial system, which made capricious use of its powers under the former government.

International rights group Human Rights Watch has said the draft constitution “protects some rights but undermines others.” It “fails to end military trials of civilians or to protect freedom of expression and religion.”

The rocky road to the referendum began when judges threatened to shut down the assembly tasked with drafting the constitution. Morsy then issued an edict in late November declaring all of his past and present decisions immune from judicial review until the holding of the constitutional referendum.

He also sacked the head of the judiciary. The judicial system has many in its ranks who are loyal to Mubarak.

The Islamist president’s opposition saw the exceptional moves as a grab for dictatorial powers and poured into the streets, converting Tahrir Square in central Cairo back into the center of public discontent it had been during the uprising that brought down Mubarak.

The president dropped his decree, but the situation remained tense. Violence raged, producing incidents that have raised the ire of international human rights groups, though these have not been systematic, as was the case under the former government.

The outcome of the election is important to the stability of volatile North Africa and the Middle East — where Egypt is a key player.