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Egyptian Islamists, opponents clash ahead of vote

A masked protester poses Friday with a tear gas canister in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist supporters in Alexandria, Egypt.

A masked protester poses Friday with a tear gas canister in front of a burning vehicle during clashes between opponents of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist supporters in Alexandria, Egypt. Photo by The Associated Press.

ALEXANDRIA, Egypt (AP) — Violence erupted between Egypt’s divided camps on Friday, the eve of the final round of a referendum on a constitution that has polarized the nation, as Islamists and their opponents pelted each other with stones while police fired tear gas in the streets of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria.

The contentious referendum, which would bring a greater implementation of Islamic law to Egypt, is expected to be approved in Saturday’s voting.

The new clashes — in which opponents of Islamists set fire to cars and dozens of people were hurt — illustrated how the new charter is unlikely to ease the violent conflict over the country’s future. For a month, Egypt has been torn between Islamists and their opponents, who accuse President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood of trying to unilaterally impose their will on the country.

For the past month, both sides have been bringing their supporters into the street for mass rallies sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands — and repeatedly erupting into clashes.

In part, Egypt’s split has been over who will shape the country’s path two years after Mubarak’s ouster. An opposition made up of liberals, leftists, secular Egyptians and a swath of the public angered over Morsi’s 6-month-old rule fear Islamists are creating a new Mubarak-style autocracy. They accuse the Brotherhood of monopolizing the levers of power and point to the draft charter, which Islamists on the Constituent Assembly rammed through despite a boycott by liberal and secular members.

Morsi’s allies say the opposition is trying to use the streets to overturn their victories at the ballot box over the past two years. They also accuse the opposition of carrying out a conspiracy by former members of Mubarak’s regime to regain power.

Intertwined with that is a fight over Islam’s role in the state. Many Islamists vow to defend God’s law, and clerics have depicted opponents as infidels. The constitution would give broad leeway for hard-liners to implement Islamic Shariah law, making civil liberties and rights of women subordinate to a more literal version of Islamic law. It also gives clerics a say in legislation for the first time to ensure parliament adheres to Shariah.

Passage of the charter will do little to resolve the confrontation — particularly if it is approved by a low margin with little turnout. The first round of voting took place Dec. 15 in 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces, and preliminary results showed a meager 32 percent turnout, leading to a 56 percent “yes” vote.

Voting Saturday will take place in the remaining 17 provinces. Preliminary results are likely to be known late Saturday or early Sunday.

The violence in Alexandria was a sign of how the conflict has moved beyond the issue of the constitution, to the deep resentments between the two camps.

Riot police swung batons and fired volleys of tear gas to separate stone-throwing Brotherhood members and ultraconservative Salafis on one side, and youthful secular protesters on the other.

The clashes started when the two groups met just after Friday prayers at the city’s main Qaed Ibrahim mosque, by the coastal promenade. Throngs of Salafi Islamists, most wearing the long beards favored by the movement, had gathered there for what they called “a rally to defend clerics and mosques.” Waving black Islamic banners, some chanted “God is Great!” and warned opponents: “With blood and soul, we redeem Islam.”

It was unclear who started the fight. During the battles, secular youths set fire to two buses and two cars belonging to Islamists, sending thick black smoke through the upscale city center. Under a heavy cloud of tear gas, the two sides pulled back, but then continued fighting for hours past dusk along the corniche, near the famed Alexandria Library.

At least 42 people were treated for injuries, with some rushed to the hospital, a city health official said.

The Islamists’ rally was called in response to violence last week, when a well-known Salafi cleric in Alexandria, Sheik Ahmed el-Mahalawi, was trapped inside a mosque for 12 hours while his supporters battled stone-throwing opponents outside with swords and firebombs.

El-Mahalawi, 87, had stirred anger with a sermon in which he denounced opponents of the draft charter as “followers of heretics.”

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