Egyptians have voted overwhelmingly in favour of amendments to the country’s constitution.

About 77 per cent voted for the changes against 23 per cent ‘no’ votes.

According to the constitutional reform committee, which was appointed by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, 41.2 per cent of the eligible population participated in the referendum held on 20 March.

The new constitution will ease restrictions on participating in presidential elections, introduce term limits for the president (a maximum of two four-year terms), enforce judicial supervision of elections and prevent arbitrary detention of civilians.

The approval of the constitutional amendments is expected to facilitate the early election of the new president and parliament. As a result, organised parties, such as the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood spoke out in favour of the changes. By contrast, presidential hopefuls Mohamed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa declared their opposition claiming that the changes did not go far enough and would not give enough time for policies to be formed.

Many voters decided to vote in favour of the changes as they considered it the clearest path to stability. But the referendum also highlighted deep divisions in Egyptian society. While wealthier citizens tended to vote ‘no’ in the referendum, poorer citizens sided with the changes.

“Around 40 per cent of the population is illiterate. Most of the no voters were urban and middle class. People who voted ‘yes’ mostly live in rural areas and are illiterate,” says a Cairo-based professional.

The vote also exposed divides on religious grounds between Muslims and Coptic Christians. Crucially, the amendments did not alter Article 2, which states that Islam is the state religion and principles of Sharia law are the main source of legislation.

Some voters are thought to have cast their ballots in favour of the changes out of fear that a no vote would allow Article 2 to be changed. “Islamists without exception voted yes. Christians and liberals all voted no,” says an Egyptian banker.