Egyptian opposition urges supporters to vote "no" in constitutional referendum, but says boycott still possible

Islamist protesters supporting Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi chant slogans in front of the Media City complex in Giza, Egypt, Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2012. AP Photo/Petr David Josek

CAIRO An Egyptian opposition alliance urged supporters on Wednesday to vote "No" in the referendum on a disputed constitution but said it may still boycott if its conditions are not met.

Hamdeen Sabahi, one of the leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front, said at a news conference the alliance would urge its supporters to boycott if judges are not overseeing the vote and the state does not provide security at the polls. The major judges' union said Tuesday it would boycott the referendum and abstain from their traditional role of oversight at the polls.

"The Front decided to call upon the people to go to the polling stations and reject the draft by saying `No,"' said Sabahi reading from a prepared statement. "The people will rally at the polls and have a chance to topple the constitution by saying `No."'

The front had been expected to call for civil disobedience, such as general strikes, to escalate the recent mass protests against President Mohammed Morsi, whose Islamist allies pushed through the draft constitution a few weeks ago. However they did not call for more protests or any other escalation of resistance at the news conference.

The opposition has been considering several options to force Morsi to back down and postpone the vote.

Ahmed Khairi, a spokesman for the liberal Free Egyptians party — a member of the National Salvation Front — said the party had been in favor of a boycott.

"There were several points of views, but as long as everybody agreed on going for `No,' we changed our position," he said. Other options, such as more rallies and civil disobedience, remain on the table.

"The constitution is a decisive battle but not the final one. We will keep on fighting for our demands and for Egypt to become a country for all. This will not be the end," he said.

Islamists who support the draft constitution, led by Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, have been distributing flyers urging a "Yes" vote along and putting up posters with the same message. They have been also been using mosques to disseminate their message.

It was not immediately clear whether the judges will now oversee the voting after the opposition said it would participate in the referendum. But the judges have all along said their stand is inspired by what they see as Morsi' assault" on the judiciary and the siege of the nation's highest court.

The opposition has been boycotting a "national dialogue" hosted by the president, saying they don't trust Morsi after he failed to live up to promises during the election campaign to form a representative national coalition government and to win a broad consensus before putting the constitution to a vote.

In another twist, Egypt's military withdrew a call for talks with the opposition, one day after proposing it.

Military spokesman Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali was quoted by the official MENA news agency as saying Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi decided to postpone Wednesday's meeting because "the response to the invitation was below expectations." The statement was not explained further.

"Lt-Gen. el-Sissi would like to seize this chance and call on all national and political forces and every segment of the glorious Egyptian people to shoulder their responsibility toward the nation and the citizens at this critical and sensitive time," Ali said.

That announcement came at the same time the opposition said it was willing to attend the meeting.

El-Sissi's call, in the midst of dueling mass protest for and against the constitution, was seen as a return of the powerful military to the political scene after Morsi's election ended nearly a year and a half of military rule following the February 2011 ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. It was the second time this week the generals have addressed the crisis, signaling their return to the political fray.

The cancellation of the army's meeting was likely made under pressure from Morsi, who has been adamant since he took office that the military must stick to its core mission, such as protecting borders. Although Morsi appointed army chief el-Sissi, he is not seen as tightly controlled by the president.

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