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At least 11 people were killed in confrontations between Muslim Brotherhood supporters and police on Tuesday, as many Egyptians voted on a draft constitution that may set the stage for a presidential bid by army chief General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Taking place without a significant "no" campaign and in a tightly controlled political environment — the banned Muslim Brotherhood has called on its supporters to boycott the polls — the draft's popularity is likely to be judged on voter turn-out.
An additional 28 people were wounded in clashes between security forces and protesters loyal to former President Mohamed Morsi, according to Egypt's Health Ministry. The ministry says the deaths occurred in Cairo, the adjacent province of Giza and two provinces south of the capital, Bani Suef and Sohag.
The election marks the first time Egyptians have gone to the polls since the military deposed Morsi in July.
The Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest political force, was recently banished from political life. But that has not stopped the group from calling for a boycott and protests over the draft constitution, which deletes Islamic language written into the basic law approved a year ago when Morsi was still in office. It also strengthens state bodies that defied him: the army, the police and the judiciary.
On Tuesday, Brotherhood supporters staged protests in at least four cities, with police arresting 65 people who were trying to obstruct voting, security officials said.
While a state crackdown has erased many freedoms won by the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, anticipation of a more stable government catapulted Egypt's stock market Tuesday to its highest level since Mubarak's downfall. In its fourth straight day of gains, the main index exceeded its January 2011 peak.
The referendum is a milestone in the political transition plan the army-backed government has billed as a path back to democracy, even as it presses a fierce crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
A presidential election could follow as early as April. A senior European diplomat on Tuesday said Sisi would probably announce his candidacy in the next few days — a prospect that will delight supporters but could stir more conflict with his Islamist opponents.
With little or no signs of a campaign against the draft constitution — one moderately Islamist party says its activists were arrested while campaigning for a no-vote — it is expected to pass easily, backed by many Egyptians who staged mass protests on June 30 against Morsi and the Brotherhood before his removal.
"We are here for two reasons: to eradicate the Brotherhood and take our rights in the constitution," said Gamal Zeinhom, a 54-year-old voter standing in line at a Cairo polling station.
Others cited a desire to bring stability to Egypt after three years of turmoil.
"This vote brings to an end the era of the Brotherhood, who divided us and turned family members against each other," said Manal Hussein, who is from a village below the Giza Pyramids plateau west of Cairo.
Sisi ousted Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected head of state, on July 3. His Islamist opponents say he is the mastermind of a coup that kindled the worst internal strife in Egypt's modern history and revived an oppressive police state.
But after a failed experiment with democracy, many are weary of the upheaval that has gripped this nation of 85 million and shattered its economy. They see Sisi, 59, as someone who can stabilize and protect Egypt from what local media depict as foreign and domestic conspiracies to divide the nation.
Earlier this week, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ), a Geneva-based group that works to uphold the rule of law, described the referendum as highly flawed.
"The referendum campaign has taken place within a context of fear, intimidation and repression, calling into question the fairness of the entire process," it said in a statement.
The government recently escalated its crackdown on the Brotherhood, declaring it a "terrorist organization" on Dec. 25. Al-Qaeda-inspired militants have stepped up attacks on security forces since Morsi's ouster.
While the government has linked the attacks to the Brotherhood, the group has repeatedly said it is a non-violent movement committed to peaceful resistance to the state.
Meanwhile, a spending bill in the U.S. Congress would restore $1.5 billion in aid to Egypt, but only on condition that the Egyptian government ensures democratic reform.
The bill links the $1.3 billion in military aid and $250 million in economic aid to Egypt's sustaining its security relationship with the U.S. and abiding by the Egypt-Israeli peace pact.
A Senate Appropriations Committee summary of the bill said some of the aid would be given only if Egypt supports a democratic transition and holds democratic elections.
The U.S. cut hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Egypt in October in response to the military coup that overthrew the Morsi government and led to a crackdown on protesters.
Al Jazeera and wire services
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