CAIRO - A slim approval of Egypt's new constitution in the first round of a two-stage referendum will deepen political polarization and set new hurdles for Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, analysts believe.
"The results of the referendum do not put an end to this state of polarization in Egyptian politics," Mustapha Kamal Al-Sayyid, a professor of political science at Cairo University, told Reuters.
Semi-official results showed that Egyptians narrowly voted in favor of a constitution fast-tracked by Islamists.
The Muslim Brotherhood's party, which propelled Morsi to power in a June election, said its unofficial tally showed 57 percent of voters backed the constitution on Saturday.
A second round of the vote now looks likely to go the same way on Saturday, December 22 as it will be held in districts with more Islamist sympathizers.
"This puts major hurdles before President Morsi because the economic measures he planned to introduce ... require a national consensus," said Sayyid.
Morsi's first attempt to implement tax increases, about a week before the vote, lasted only a few hours before he withdrew them amid howls of public anger, which his opponents exploited.
His prime minister has promised a "national dialogue" to explain the government's determination to protect the poor.
But Morsi cannot wait long as the measures are seen as essential to securing a vital $4.8-billion loan from the International Monetary Fund.
The loan was delayed by a month immediately after Morsi's policy U-turn on the tax increases.
Political turmoil in Egypt since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak last year has hammered the country's economy, sending the pound to eight-year lows against the dollar.
However, it is not all black for the Islamist president as some investors may be happy to see a constitution in place as it resolves one of their worries that the transition to democracy was drifting, even if plenty more concerns remain.
After the unofficial referendum result, Egypt's benchmark stock market index rose 2.7 percent.
"Given how severe the downside risks seemed just a week or so ago, a fiercely contested referendum attracting a decent turnout is a positive outcome," said HSBC economist Simon Williams.
"However polarized the debate may have become, if it stays within the institutions of the state, then there is some prospect of the political transition moving forward," he said.
Analysts also opine that the slim victory of the constitution will play into the hands of the opposition in the parliamentary election.
The opposition comes out of this in a stronger position," Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center told Reuters.
"Morsi and the Brotherhood were hoping for a decisive victory to claim vindication. But they are not going to be able to do that.
There are already signs of a trend.
A constitutional declaration put weeks after Mubarak's ouster, which was backed by Islamists, secured more than 75 percent of the vote.
Islamists then swept up a big majority in voting for the interim parliament, securing about 70 percent of seats.
But Morsi's presidential win in June was less convincing, taking only about 52 percent of votes against a Mubarak's last prime minister.
Saturday's vote also confirmed that non-Islamists are starting to form a more credible challenge.
"This is a good result for Egypt's democratic process," Hamid said.
"It shows non-Islamists can gain ground against Islamists in democratic elections. They do have an interest in shifting the battle from the street to institutionalized politics."
Liberals have no such history of organization in Egypt.
Though the Popular Current movement of leftist Hamdeen Sabahy and Mohamed ElBaradei's Constitution Party have broadened their appeal, they boast nothing like the grass-roots presence of the Islamists.
"If the secular forces fail to be united, this will in the end lead to a greater gain for the Freedom and Justice Party," the deputy leader of the Brotherhood's political party, Essam el-Erian, told Reuters.He also dismissed evidence of divisions in society as something present "all over the world".