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Egypt Islamists protest ahead of vote results

Protesters loyal to ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi clash with police as Egypt await official results of constitutional referendum.

CAIRO: Protesters loyal to ousted Islamist president Mohamed Morsi clashed with police on Friday as Egypt awaited official results of a constitutional referendum the army-backed government billed as an endorsement of Morsi's overthrow.

Clashes were reported in Cairo and the Suez Canal city of Ismailiya, while police fired tear gas to disperse a demonstration in Suez itself, security officials said.

The interim authorities trumpeted the two-day poll as a chance for voters to show their support for the army's overthrow of Egypt's first freely elected president last July after mass protests on the streets.

Flagship state-owned daily Al-Ahram hailed a 98 per cent vote in support of the new charter drawn up the interim authorities to replace the Islamist-inspired one adopted under Morsi's rule in December 2012.

Morsi's Islamist supporters, who boycotted the vote, described it as a farce and predicted it would culminate in the sort of massive electoral fraud that characterised the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak, ended by the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.

Police fired tear gas at pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo and the Mediterranean city of Alexandria, security officials and state media said, in what has become a weekly ritual in a massive crackdown on Islamist protests.

The government hoped a large turnout among Egypt's 53 million registered voters in the referendum would shore up its democratic credentials and further marginalise the Islamists.

Army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the man who toppled Morsi, was closely monitoring voter participation as an indication of support for a presidential bid later this year, military officials said.

Preliminary tallies reported by the state MENA news agency suggested turnout had reached 39 percent in most provinces in the two days of polling on Tuesday and Wednesday, sharply up on the 33 per cent registered in the Morsi-era referendum just over a year ago.

The office of interim president Adly Mansour hailed a "high turnout" in the vote on a new charter it says gives new protections for free speech and women's rights, although it gave no figures.

The government said the vote showed support for Morsi's overthrow. "This was also a referendum on June 30," said government spokesman Hany Salah, referring to the day when millions of protesters took to the streets demanding Morsi's resignation.

'Fools' celebrations'

But the Islamist opposition mocked the figures put out by state media and called for mass demonstrations on Saturday of next week, the third anniversary of Mubarak's overthrow, to protest what they charged was a return to the mockery of democracy that characterised his rule.

"Let the putschists deceive themselves and hold fools' celebrations," it said.

"The whole world laughs at them as they bring back six decades' corruption and fraud, and the usual 99.99 per cent results in all elections, in their favour -- of course."

The US administration is closely watching the results of Egypt's referendum, but has not yet decided whether to unfreeze some $1.5 billion in aid, the State Department said on Thursday.

Washington suspended its aid -- most of it military -- last October, angered that there had been little indication of a return to democracy after Morsi's overthrow.

"There are a range of factors we look to," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington, saying merely holding the constitutional referendum this week was not enough.

The referendum has put the Islamists on the back foot, and gives the Egyptian government even less incentive to negotiate with Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

The government has designated the party, which had won every previous vote since Mubarak's overthrow, a "terrorist organisation," making even expressions of verbal support punishable by heavy prison sentences.

Morsi himself has been in custody since his ouster and is currently standing trial in the first of three separate cases being brought against him.

"We are definitely moving forward, whether they want to or not," a government spokesman said. "We believe they live in a virtual world."

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