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Egypt votes on constitutional changes

CAIRO -- Eager for their first taste of a free vote in decades, Egyptians lined up by the hundreds yesterday to vote on constitutional amendments sponsored by the ruling military that critics fear could propel the country's largest Islamist group to become Egypt's most dominant political force.

The nationwide referendum is the first major test of the country's transition to democracy after a popular uprising forced longtime leader Hosni Mubarak to step down five weeks ago, handing the reins of power to the military.

Underscoring the tensions beneath the euphoria, however, a crowd of angry men pelted reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and a group of his supporters with rocks, bottles and cans outside a polling center at Cairo's Mokattam district.

ElBaradei, who also was the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog agency, wasn't injured but was forced to flee in an SUV without casting his ballot. The crowd also smashed the car windows and shouted, "You traitor. We don't want you." ElBaradei supporters at the scene countered by chanting "we want you."

The Nobel laureate later tweeted that "organized thugs" were to blame for the attack. In a second Twitter posting, he said figures from the Mubarak regime were seeking to undermine the revolution, a reference to the uprising that ousted the former leader.

Early signs showed an unusually big turnout, with lines forming before polls opened and snaking along the streets in Cairo and other cities. Men and women stood in separate lines as is customary in the conservative and mainly Muslim nation.

The vote promises to be the freest in Egypt since the 1952 ouster of the monarchy.

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