Egyptians are voting on a draft constitution that many fear gives too much power to the country's Islamists and fails to adequately protect the rights of women, minority groups and the press.
Rallies both for and against the constitution and President Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, were held on Friday, as security across Cairo was tightened.
A decree issued weeks ago by Morsi declaring that his decisions are beyond judicial review has triggered daily protests and clashes between supporters of the democratically elected president and his opponents. In the wake of the decree, Morsi further angered many Egyptians by shepherding a constitutional draft – hurriedly written and voted on by a constituent assembly dominated by Islamists – to a quick national referendum.
While Morsi later backed away from his decree, his insistence in rushing the referendum has raised worries about democracy and rights protections in post-revolution Egypt. A recent court ruling in Cairo sentencing an atheist to three years' prison for blasphemy has only heightened the fears of opposition supporters, particularly liberal secularists.
Morsi's recent moves to sideline Egypt's powerful judiciary, extend his executive power, and push for a snap vote on the constitution undermine the Egyptian people's aspiration for new, truly democratic governance. The moves have fuelled suspicions and aggravated deep divisions within Egyptian society – some of which date back to the early days of the protest movement that toppled the corrupt 34-year rule of former president Hosni Mubarak.
Noting these growing divisions, The Wall Street Journal warns: "Even if the constitution passes ... half of Egypt's divided society will consider the vote illegitimate – a recipe for further unrest or for Egypt's best and brightest to flee the country."
If the charter does pass, as is likely, Morsi will face a test. If he makes genuine concessions to the millions of Egyptians who want strong protection of rights and secular government, he has a chance to become the leader his country needs to transition from decades of autocracy and repression. However, if he moves to consolidate his Islamist base at the expense of the wider Egyptian society, he risks triggering more anger, division and violence.
Sources: BBC, Al Jazeera, Avaaz, New York Times, Financial Times, Wall Street Journal