CAIRO -- Egyptians were voting Tuesday on a draft constitution that represents a key milestone in a military-backed roadmap put in place after the nation's Islamist president was overthrown in a popularly backed coup last July.
The two-day balloting also deals a heavy blow to the Muslim Brotherhood's campaign for the reinstatement of ousted President Mohammed Morsi and paves the way for a likely presidential run by the nation's top general, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Few doubt that Egyptians, who staged mass protests against Morsi's rule before his ouster, will turn out in big numbers and vote "yes" in the referendum.
A massive security operation was under way to protect polling stations and voters against
possible attacks by militants loyal to Morsi, with 160,000 soldiers and more
than 200,000 policemen deployed across the nation of some 90 million people.
Egypt's Western allies were hoping that a more competitive political field would emerge, three years after the Arab Spring tide of democratic change swept through the country.
Shortly before polls opened, an explosive device went off outside a Cairo courthouse in the densely populated neighborhood of Imbaba. The blast damaged the front of the building and cars parked outside. It shattered windows in nearby buildings, but caused no casualties.
Long lines of voters began to form nearly two hours before polling stations opened in Cairo, including in Imbaba, where the blast promptly whipped up anti-Brotherhood sentiment with chants and shouting against the Islamist group.
"The dogs, the traitors!" shouted a man on a motorcycle as he passed by the courthouse after the blast. A line of voters in a nearby polling station chanted in unison, "Long live Egypt!"
A crowd of several hundred angry residents gathered outside the courthouse, some carrying posters of el-Sissi. "Everyone must go now and vote to show those dogs, the Brothers," shouted one man.
Outside a nearby polling station, 67-year-old Alaa al-Nabi Mohammed echoed a similar sentiment - that Egyptians have consigned Morsi and the Brotherhood's year-long rule to the past.
"I am here to send a message to the world and to those who hate Egypt that we want to live and get our country back on its feet," he said.
Another voter, Ismail Mustafa, said he was voting "yes" in the hope of ending the turmoil that has engulfed Egypt since the 2011 ouster of the country's longtime autocratic ruler Hosni Mubarak.
"This is it, we have had it. I will vote 'yes' even if it is the last thing I do," Mustafa said.
The Tuesday and Wednesday balloting is the first electoral test for the popularly backed coup that ousted Morsi and his Brotherhood.
A comfortable "yes" vote and a respectable turnout would bestow legitimacy on the cascade of events that followed the coup while undermining the Islamists' argument that Morsi remains the nation's elected president.
Morsi's Brotherhood, which is now branded as a terrorist group, has called for a boycott of the vote. Morsi himself is facing three separate trials on charges that carry the death penalty.
The unprecedented security surrounding the vote follows months of violence that authorities have blamed on Islamic militants. In the six months since Morsi's ouster, there has been an assassination attempt on the interior minister as well as deadly attacks on key security officers, soldiers, policemen and provincial security and military intelligence headquarters.
"You must come out and vote to prove to those behind the dark terrorism that you are not afraid," Interim President Adly Mansour told reporters after he voted early in the day.
Morsi's supporters have said they would stage massive demonstrations and have labeled the draft charter a "constitution of blood." In response, the government has warned it would deal harshly with anyone interfering with the referendum.
There were small demonstrations by Morsi supporters in parts of the country, but they only attracted dozens.
Most of Egypt's minority Coptic Christians, who make up about 10 percent of the population, have backed the removal of Morsi and the charter in hopes of winning religious freedoms.
"Anyone who was raised in Egypt will choose this constitution," said Verta Nassif, a 70-year old Christian from Assuit, a stronghold of Islamists and home to a large Christian community south of Cairo.
"We want Egypt to flourish and Muslims and Christians to live together in peace," said another Assiut voter, Nadia Saleeb, 70.
But in the days running up to the vote, Egypt looked more like a country going to war rather than one preparing for a transition to democratic rule. The government and the overwhelmingly pro-military media have portrayed the balloting as the key to the nation's security and stability over which there can be no dissent.
Hundreds of thousands of fliers, posters, banners and billboards exhort Egyptians to vote "yes." Posters - and campaigns - urging a 'no' vote have led to arrests.
The referendum is the sixth nationwide vote since the authoritarian Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising in 2011, with the five others possibly the freest ever seen in Egypt.
While unlikely to be stained by fraud, the vote is taking place at a time when many of the freedoms won in the uprising that toppled Mubarak have vanished in the months since Morsi was removed after just one year in office.
The new charter, drafted by a liberal-dominated committee appointed by the military-backed government, would ban political parties based on religion, give women equal rights and protect the status of minority Christians. But it also gives the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister for the next eight years and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals.
The charter is in fact a heavily amended version of a constitution written by Morsi's Islamist allies and ratified in December 2012 with some 64 percent of the vote but with a nationwide turnout of just over 30 percent.
"The constitution is not perfect," said Ameena Abdel-Salam after she cast her ballot in Cairo's upscale Zamalek district. "But we need to move forward and we can fix it later."