Egyptians began voting today on a new constitution that is supported by the ruling Islamist, but bitterly contested by a secular-leaning opposition.
Polls opened in Cairo, Alexandria and eight other provinces and are scheduled to close at 7:00 pm in the first round. The rest of the country votes on Dec. 22.
State television showed President Mohamed Mursi cast his ballot in a polling station close to his presidential palace in Cairo, but he refused to comment to the media.
Mursi's determined backing of the charter triggered the power struggle with the opposition, which is backed by judges who accuse the Islamists of overreaching their power.
Pope Tawadros II, head of Egypt's Coptic Orthodox church, arrived at a school in Cairo's Abbasiya and cast his ballot alongside other Egyptian voters.
The liberal, secular and Christian opposition says the constitution is too Islamist and tramples on minority rights. President Mohamed Mursi supporters say the charter is needed if progress is to be made towards democracy nearly two years after the fall of military-backed strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Queues formed outside polling stations in Cairo and other cities and soldiers joined police to secure the referendum process after deadly protests build up.
Clashes renewed on referendum eve
Late on Friday, Alexandria was the scene of clashes on the eve of the referendum between opponents of the draft charter and Islamists.
Dozens of activists fought with clubs and swords, witnesses told Reuters. Cars were set on fire on the streets of Egypt's second biggest city.
A large crowd of President Mohamed Mursi's opponents armed with knives and clubs later surrounded an Alexandria mosque trapping inside a preacher who had criticized those planning to oppose the constitution when voting begins on Saturday.
Al Arabiya correspondent also reported late Friday that protesters against President Mursi were attacked in the eastern province of Port Said.
Tensions have been running high over the referendum, which is being held over two successive Saturdays, after weeks of protests and violence between the rival camps in Cairo that killed eight people and injured hundreds last week.
Both sides were holding further rallies in Cairo on Friday.
In Cairo, flag-waving pro-Mursi Islamists staged a final rally before the referendum, but the gathering outside one of the capital's main mosques was peaceful.
Members of the liberal, secular and Christian opposition gathered outside the presidential palace to demonstrate against a proposed constitution they say is too heavily influenced by Islamists.
Tired of turmoil
The charter is at the heart of a power struggle between President Mursi and the opposition, backed by judges who accuse the Islamists of overreaching.
The vote will be staggered over two rounds to ensure there will be enough judges to monitor polling stations amid a rift within the judiciary over the referendum process.
The first round's unofficial results are expected hours after the polling stations close.
Mursi has ordered Egypt's military to help police maintain security until the results of the referendum are known. A total of 130,000 police and 120,000 soldiers are being deployed, interior ministry and military officials told AFP.
The measure is nevertheless expected to pass, given the well-organized Muslim Brotherhood's record of winning elections since the fall of Mubarak. Many Egyptians, tired of turmoil, may simply fall in line.
The first round of voting on Saturday will take place in Cairo and other major cities. Official results won't be announced until after the second round, though it is likely that details will emerge to give a good steer on the first-day figures, which are expected to show a strong vote in favor.
The charter has been criticized 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.