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Egyptian opposition's dilemma: To vote or not to vote

For President Morsi's political opposition, the next few hours will decide whether it decides to vote 'no' in Saturday's constitutional referendum or boycott the scheduled poll entirely

Dina Samak , Tuesday 11 Dec 2012
Egypt for all Egyptians
Anti-Morsi protest in Tahrir Square, Sign: "Egypt for all Egyptians" (Photo: Reuters)
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In a few days, Egyptians will vote in a constitutional referendum that the opposition rejects. But it is clear that the opposition does not yet have a unified stance regarding what position it plans to take if the referendum is conducted on schedule.

Between a 'no' vote and a boycott of the ballot boxes, the National Salvation Front (NSF) has called for a third option.

"Rejection is Rejection," NSF spokesman Hussein Abdel-Ghani said in a Sunday night press conference, only six days before the scheduled poll. "We don't think this constitution is legitimate and we will work to stop the referendum."

However, the NSF's rejectionist position cannot be understood without further explanation of the current situation, as Khaled Dawood, another front spokesman, explains.

"This is an opposition front that represents a different political orientation," he said. "We all agree that the constitution is not legitimate, but we are also aware that the front is not leading the street. Rather, the opposite is true."

According to Dawood, dissent in the street against the constitution and against the way the Muslim Brotherhood's President Mohamed Morsi is leading the country was as surprising to opposition leaders as it was to the ruling group.

"We really can't come out and tell the people that they have to deal with Saturday's referendum as an unavoidable evil when they still think they can fight against it and actually stop it," added Dawood. "It is the street that will define the next move; all we can do is articulate the demands of the people."

NSF sources told Ahram Online that the last few days have seen numerous disagreements about what the next step should be.

"All ideas were subject to discussion," said Abdel-Ghani, "from meetings with the president for further negotiations to calls for a general strike."

Both these ideas were ruled out after long negotiations, especially after the president, according to the NSF, refused to meet the front's demands and postpone the referendum or set a clear agenda for the dialogue that he called for.

"Anything is possible in the coming hours. We did not expect that the popular pressure on the president would make him cancel his 22 November decree (later partially abrogated on 8 December) or call for national dialogue. This could happen again and more concessions could be extracted," said Dawood.

Even though the president insists on holding the referendum on schedule, he has continued to hold meetings with well-established national figures to discuss possible ways out of the current crisis.

On Tuesday, Morsi met with veteran historian and thinker Mohamed Hassanein Heikal and Islamist thinker and writer Fahmi Howeidy. The night before, he met the leader of the liberal Wafd Party, El-Sayed El-Badawi, who is also a member of the NSF.

El-Badawi's meeting with Morsi was not applauded by the opposition, however, or even by his own party, which described its leader as "only representing himself" at the meeting.

El-Badawi, for his part, made it clear after his meeting with the president that the only way out of the current crisis was for the president to postpone the planned referendum and launch a serious dialogue with the opposition. El-Badawi's advice to the president was similar to that offered by Heikal and Howeidy on Tuesday, according to sources who spoke to Ahram Online.  

Later, at a Tuesday press conference, El-Badawi said that the president had promised to provide him with an answer to his recommendation by Wednesday.

But in the event the referendum is held on schedule, what will the opposition's position be?

"I support the NSF's struggle to cancel or postpone the referendum," Amr Mousa said via Twitter on Tuesday. "But if the president insists on holding it on time, and if the judiciary accepts to supervise the elections, I call on people to vote against it [the draft charter]."

The Egyptian Judges Club is expected to announce its position later on Tuesday. But even the State Council Judges Club has made its supervision conditional on a tranquil security environment before and during the referendum.

"Voting 'no' in this case will not only be voting on the constitution," said Dawood. "It will be an act of dissent and will send a message to the president that the will of the people cannot be ignored."

Dawood thinks a 'no' vote will represent a vote against the way the Brotherhood is managing the country, and will give newly politicized members of the public a chance to make their voices heard rather than passively staying at home.

But the NSF is not the entire opposition, even if it represents leading figures within it, including Mohamed ElBaradei, who supporters see as the godfather of Egypt's 25 January Revolution; Hamdeen Sabbahi, ex-presidential candidate and founder of the Popular Front; and Amr Mousa, Mubarak-era FM and founder of the Conference Party.

Other political parties and revolutionary groups who are not part of the NSF have already made up their minds about the looming referendum.

The centre-left 'Strong Egypt' party, founded by ex-Brotherhood leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh, has called on supporters to vote against the draft constitution. So too has the Egyptian Current party, the new political home of many young political activists who left the Brotherhood following Mubarak's ouster.

The same position is shared by the 6 April Youth Movement that supported President Morsi in the presidential runoff.

"We are organising campaigns all over the country against the draft constitution, trying to explain to the people why we think that this is not the constitution of the revolution," 6 April founding member Mohamed Adel told Ahram Online. "We are not telling people to boycott or vote 'no,' but we hope the opposition will forge a united position and we will support it. Nevertheless, our members support the 'no' vote."

Tuesday night, the opposition believes, will be a watershed in any event. With multiple marches having already set out towards the presidential palace to demand the cancelation of the scheduled referendum – and other protests being held by Islamist parties in support of holding the referendum on time – the NSF is waiting to see how much momentum the opposition can muster.

The Judges Club, meanwhile, is expected to announce its decision later on Tuesday as to whether or not it will participate in supervising the upcoming poll – another factor that will no doubt influence the opposition's final decision on whether to vote 'no' or boycott.

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