Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi
Egyptian President Mohammed MorsiAFP photo

Egypt's ruling Islamists claimed early Sunday that preliminary referendum results showed strong backing for a divisive constitution rejected by the secular opposition, hours after polls closed and tallying began.

AFP reported that the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said in a statement that 73.7 percent had voted for the constitution, with votes tallied from almost two thirds of polling stations.

The preliminary results for the referendum's second round are collected from returning officers who oversee the count. Official results are expected within two days.

On the eve of Saturday's polling, clashes in Alexandria injured 62 people as stone-throwing mobs torched vehicles, underlining the turmoil gripping the Arab world's most populous nation.

The proposed charter was expected to be adopted after already garnering 57 percent support in the first round of the referendum a week ago.

The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, alleged in a statement that ballot fraud had taken place since the polls opened, including reports of laymen posing as judges supposed to oversee the vote.

Earlier on Saturday, President Mohammed Morsi's vice president, Mahmud Mekki, whose post is not mentioned in the new charter, announced that he was resigning.

"Political work does not suit my professional character," he said in a statement, referring to his past as a respected judge.

State television reported that Central Bank chief Faruq El-Okda had also resigned, but later cited a cabinet source as denying this had happened.

A slim margin and a low first-round turnout in the referendum is expected to embolden the opposition, which looks likely to continue its campaign against Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement.

Rights groups say the charter limits the freedoms of religious minorities and women, while allowing the military, which retains considerable influence over politics, to try civilians it believes "harm" the army.

The key points of the controversial draft constitution are:

- Islam remains Egypt's official religion. The previous formulation that the "principles of sharia" are the main source of legislation is maintained.

However, these principles are broadened to include Sunni Muslim doctrinal interpretations.

- "Freedom of faith is guaranteed" -- but only for Islam, Christianity and Judaism, not for other religions.

- The president is limited to two consecutive four-year terms, not indefinitely as under Mubarak.

- The defense minister is chosen from within the military. Also, the military's budget will be decided by a committee dominated by military officers, effectively making it independent of civilian oversight.

 - Civilians will not be tried in military courts except in cases where the "crimes may harm the armed forces." The opposition and rights groups demand that this vaguely defined exception be removed.

- The charter upholds "the equality of citizens under the law without discrimination," but omits an explicit mention of equality of the sexes.

- Freedom of expression is protected -- except when it comes to "insults against physical persons" or "insults towards the prophets." Some fear those exceptions open the door to censorship.

- The state is the designated protector of "public morals and order."

- It is forbidden for Egypt to sign international treaties and conventions that go against the constitution.