By Yasmine Saleh
CAIRO (Reuters) - A big majority of Egyptians approved amendments to the constitution in a referendum, results showed, opening the door to early elections seen as favoring Islamists and figures affiliated with the old ruling party.
Decades of oppression under Hosni Mubarak crushed Egypt's political life and secular activists who mobilized to oust him from the presidency say more time is needed before elections that may now come as early as September.
Saturday's vote was the first in living memory whose outcome was not a foregone conclusion and 77 percent voted for the changes, many of them saying they hoped a 'yes' vote would help restore stability after weeks of upheaval.
"Egyptians came forward to have their say in the future of the country," said Mohammed Ahmed Attiyah, the head of the judicial oversight committee, announcing a 41 percent turnout.
Turnout was always very low for elections which were routinely rigged under Mubarak.
The amendments were drawn up by a judicial panel appointed by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The military says it wants to relinquish authority to an elected government as quickly as possible.
One of the changes prevents a president serving more than eight years, making Egypt one of few Arab republics to set such a restriction. Mubarak, ousted by a popular uprising on February 11, had ruled for three decades.
The referendum divided Egyptians between those who said the reforms would suffice and others who said the constitution needed a complete rewrite -- something that will happen after the legislative elections.
The changes were backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamist group and one of the forces that mobilized against Mubarak, and remnants of the former president's National Democratic Party.
"The main fear is that it will be interpreted by some of the political forces that supported the referendum as a kind of support for their programs, and I mean the Islamists," political analyst Diaa Rashwan told Reuters.
Hossein Gohar, a doctor, said: "Liberal, secular voices had better unite now and go down to the streets to raise awareness."
Essam al-Erian, a Brotherhood spokesman, rejected claims the group had exploited its religious influence to persuade voters.
The Brotherhood praised the Egyptian people, saying it hoped they would be "a model that would lead all the Arab world to the shores of freedom and human dignity."
U.S. PRAISE FOR REFERENDUM
The referendum was a milestone on the course charted by the military toward elections. The military has signaled the parliamentary election could happen in September, with the presidential vote after that.
Two presidential candidates, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the U.N. watchdog, had opposed the changes.
The Brotherhood, which was officially banned but tolerated under Mubarak, has said it will seek neither a parliamentary majority or the presidency in the coming elections.
The United States, whose alliance with Egypt is a cornerstone of its regional policy, said the referendum was "an important step toward realising the aspirations of the January 25 revolution."
U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey said in a statement "the sight of Egyptians coming forward in unprecedented numbers to peacefully exercise their newly won freedoms is cause for great optimism."
Some advocates of a 'yes' vote argued that approving the constitution would help put Egypt back on a path to political and economic stability -- an argument that appeared to influence many.
"This was a vote on stability and getting the country back onto a faster transition process: a desire to have a quicker rather than a drawn-out process," said Josh Stacher, a political scientist who observed voting on Saturday.
Tareq al-Bishry, head of the judicial council that drafted the amendments, said a committee comprising 100 members of the newly-elected upper and lower houses of parliament would draw up a new constitution after the legislative elections.
Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist, said he was surprised by the margin of the win. The 'yes' vote appeared to have been boosted by the support of conservative groups linked to the government, rural classes and the poorly educated, he said.
"The more liberal, enlightened, and educated segment of society voted 'No'," he said.