Egyptians began voting Monday in a referendum on constitutional amendments that opponents have condemned as a sham and a setback to democratic progress.
A variety of opposition parties have called for a boycott, making the referendum a test of popular support for the government's program of gradually introducing limited political reforms.
The opposition says the constitutional amendments strengthen the president"s security powers and reduce the independent oversight of elections, increasing the chance of polling fraud — a chronic problem in Egypt.
The Bush administration also has expressed concern that Monday's vote will be less than fair and democratic.
The largest opposition bloc, the Muslim Brotherhood, has said it would stage demonstrations despite a government ban, raising fears of clashes with police similar to those that marred the May 2005 referendum on constitution change.
On the eve of polling, President Hosni Mubarak's son Gamal urged people to vote in large numbers, saying the 34 amendments were a "very important step in our march toward further reform on the political side.”
“We hope we will get the turnout we worked to achieve,” said Gamal Mubarak, who heads the policy-making board of the ruling National Democratic Party.
Polling appeared to be very slow from a quick look at polling stations in the capital, Cairo. One polling station near the city center received only four voters in the first hour.
“I swear to God, I don't know what I'm voting for,” said Hassan abdel Salaam, a house painter. “If I didn't vote, maybe I would get into trouble. I have five children and we live in one room.”
Government figures on the turnout, when they are released, are likely to be met with strong skepticism. The state claimed that 54 percent of the country's 32 million voters took part in the 2005 referendum, but a judicial report said this was grossly exaggerated and that polling in most stations in half of the country's provinces did not exceed 3 percent.
Mubarak is holding a referendum exactly a week after the parliament approved the 34 amendments, provoking charges that he is rushing through the changes before the opposition can mobilise.
One amendment expressly bans parties founded on religious denomination — a move that targets the Muslim Brotherhood — which is technically banned from elections but fields candidates who register as independents.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she raised US criticism of Egyptian democracy efforts with Mubarak, but added the United States would not try to dictate how Egypt should proceed.
“I've made my concerns known, as well as my hopes, for continued reform here in Egypt,” Rice told a news conference in Aswan, Egypt, after talks with the Egyptian president and foreign minister. “The process of reform is one that is difficult — it's going to have its ups and downs.”
Under Egyptian law, a simple majority “yes” vote is needed for the amendments to pass, regardless of the turnout.