Egyptians voted Monday on controversial constitutional changes which have prompted calls by the opposition to boycott the referendum.
The regime claims the amendments fulfil President Husni Mubarak's promise for democratic reforms. Critics see them as a major setback for basic freedoms and an attempt by the regime to impose limitations on the Islamist opposition's growing popularity whilst ensuring a smooth transition from Mubarak to his son Gamal.
"These changes are crucial for the future of the country," Mubarak said Saturday at a rally in southern Egypt. "The constitutional amendments... should prevent trading in religion and illegitimate political activity and safeguard the nation against the threat of terrorism," he said, according to AFP.
Most of the 34 articles being amended remove references to socialism. But the changes also allow the authorities to detain terrorism suspects without warrant and refer them to military courts and reduce judicial oversight of elections.
One amendment bans political activity based on religion.
Voting kicked off at 8:00 am (0600 GMT) in close to 10,000 polling stations nationwide.
The latest referendum to take place in Egypt was in May 2005 when Mubarak proposed a constitutional amendment that paved the way for the country's first pluralist presidential election.
Turnout was put officially at 53 percent but experts and observers said it barely exceeded three percent.