Egypt’s controversial new constitution has been signed into law by President Mohamed Morsy, a day after he announced it had been approved by a large majority in a referendum that his opponents claim was marked by widespread irregularities.

Critics say Mr. Morsy has pushed through the new constitution, hurriedly drafted by his Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies. They say it is undemocratic and too Islamist, and that it could allow clerics to intervene in the lawmaking process and leave minority groups without proper legal protection.

Results of the two-part referendum, announced on Tuesday, showed that an overwhelming 63.8 per cent of Egyptians had approved the text, paving the way for parliamentary elections in about two months.

The result is the Islamists’ third straight electoral victory since the former autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year.

The referendum passed, however, on a low turnout of 32.9 per cent of Egypt’s 52 million eligible voters, amid allegations — rejected by Mr. Morsy’s supporters— that “fake judges” had supervised some of the polling. In a news conference on Tuesday night, Sami Abu al-Maati, the head of the electoral commission, rejected claims by the largely secular opposition that the vote had been rigged.

According to a spokesman for Egypt’s presidency, Mr. Morsy signed the decree, making the constitution legally binding late on Tuesday night. Though the new legal framework was supposed to be the cornerstone of the transition to democracy, its drafting has been divisive.

A number of key groups, including Coptic Christians and secular liberals, withdrew from the drafting process, saying it had been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. For his part, Mr. Morsy has tried to argue that adopting the text quickly was crucial to ending a protracted period of turmoil and uncertainty in Egypt that had badly damaged the country’s economy.

Hours before the referendum result was announced, the authorities imposed a new ban on travelling in or out of the country with more than $10,000 in foreign currency, a move apparently intended to halt capital flight.

The rules were introduced after some Egyptians began withdrawing their savings from banks in fear of tougher currency restrictions.

After the announcement that the new constitution had been signed into law, Mr. Morsy moved quickly to swear in new members of the country’s Shura Council, or upper house of Parliament, which he protected from dissolution by decree last month.

The council currently includes 270 members, 90 of whom were appointed by Mr. Morsy on Monday, and will have legislative authority until a new lower house of parliament is elected.

The Islamist-dominated council is expected to draft a law regulating the upcoming parliamentary elections. Other items on the agenda may include laws on protests and the media. Top of the agenda, however, will be the country’s economic woes.

The government has begun a series of meetings with businessmen, trade unions, NGOs and other groups to persuade them of the need for tax increases and spending cuts to resolve the financial crisis.

“The government calls on the people not to worry about the country’s economy,” said the parliamentary affairs minister, Mohamed Mahsoub, in a speech to the council.

“We are not facing an economic problem but a political one, and it is affecting the economic situation. We therefore urge all groups, opponents and brothers, to achieve wide reconciliation and consensus.”

Mr. Morsy will address the council on Saturday in a speech likely to be dominated by economic policy. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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