Cairo: Forty million Egyptians get their first taste of a free vote in decades when a package of constitutional amendments sponsored by Egypt's ruling military goes to a nationwide vote on Saturday.
The referendum is the first major test of the country's transition to democracy after a popular uprising overthrew President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule.
The amendments drawn up by a panel of military-appointed legal scholars are intended to bring just enough change to the current constitution which the military suspended after coming to power to ensure that upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections are free and fair.
They would open the elections to independent and opposition candidates and restore full judicial supervision of votes, a measure seen as key to preventing fraud.
They would also limit presidents to two four-year terms, and curtail 30-year-old emergency laws that give police near-unlimited powers.
A "yes" vote would allow parliamentary and presidential elections to be held before the end of the year.
Critics are using social networks and full-page ads in newspapers to argue that the entire constitution must be scrapped and a new one drawn up to guarantee that Egypt is spared future dictators. Egypt has been ruled by men of military backgrounds since 1952 and the current constitution outlines a system that puts overwhelming power in the hands of the president.
The critics also say elections this year will overwhelm the dozens of new political parties born out of the January 25 - February 11 uprising and give unfair advantage to Mubarak's National Democratic Party and the Muslim Brotherhood, the two largest and best organized political forces in the country.
Voters in Saturday's referendum will be asked to cast ballots to say 'yes' or 'no' to the entire package of nine changes, something that critics describe as out of tune with the country's new democratic climate.
Advocates of the amendments say that rejecting them will prolong the rule of the generals who took over from Mubarak when he stepped down February 11 in the face of the 18-day popular uprising.
"We want the new constitution to be born in a democratic environment and drafted by people chosen by elected lawmakers," said Tarek al-Bishry, the head of the committee that drafted the changes.