Egyptian opposition united against referendum, undecided on participation

Osman El Sharnoubi, Tuesday 11 Dec 2012

Protesters at presidential palace in Cairo hope to see constitutional referendum postponed. If poll is held on schedule Saturday, however, most look set to vote 'no'

File photo: An Egyptian voter casts his vote in a polling station in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 19, 2011 during referendum on constitutional amendments (Photo: AP)

As protesters opposed to President Mohamed Morsi gathered outside the presidential palace in Cairo on Tuesday evening, many insisted on maintaining pressure against Saturday's controversial constitutional referendum, which opposition groups want to see postponed until national consensus can be reached on the document's contents.

Tens of thousands flocked through the cement barricades erected by security forces to voice their opposition to voting on a draft national charter which they see as having been drawn up by the Muslim Brotherhood, the group that Morsi – who called for the poll – belonged to before being elected Egypt's first post-Mubarak president.

"I think protesting against the referendum is a must," said Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, a company owner, as he stood amid likeminded protesters on El-Marghany Street adjacent to the palace.

Abdel-Aziz said he hoped that enough pressure would force the president to postpone the poll. If it comes down to a vote, however, Abdel-Aziz says he will vote 'no.'

While many opposition groups have openly rejected the draft constitution, they have yet to adopt a clear stance on whether to vote 'no' or boycott the referendum altogether. Like Abdel-Aziz, other protesters agree that they will keep up pressure on the presidency in hopes of seeing the poll delayed, but take different positions on what should be done on Saturday.

"The Brotherhood is dying to rig this referendum," said Adel Shawki, a protester and manager of a currency-exchange shop. "If I feel that the vote is transparent and honest, I will consider voting, depending on what the National Salvation Front and the street decide to do."

The National Salvation Front (NSF) is an umbrella group comprising major liberal and leftist parties and other independent groups. The NSF has announced its rejection of the referendum and called for continued mass protests.

The front has said it would announce its final position on Wednesday regarding participation in the upcoming poll, declaring that it would only take a decision once it received guarantees that the poll would be conducted fairly with "a judge at every ballot box."

Judges across Egypt have refused to oversee the referendum, however, due to a controversial constitutional declaration issued by Morsi last month that made his decisions immune from judicial challenge.

While the declaration was later replaced with another one, some of the implications of the first decree – including an article protecting the Constituent Assembly (which wrote the draft constitution) and Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's parliament) from dissolution – remain in effect.

"I'm for boycotting [the referendum], but if the majority [of those rejecting the referendum] decide to vote 'no,' I'll follow suit," said Hanan Suleiman, an actress taking part in Tuesday's protests.

Suleiman said that the ongoing protests might at least force the president to grant the opposition concessions. She would prefer it, however, if the referendum was scrapped altogether.

The process by which the proposed constitution was drafted was severely criticised after the head of the Constituent Assembly rushed it through the final phase of the constitution-drafting process. A final marathon session in which assembly members hurriedly approved the document weeks before the deadline given for the draft's completion discomforted many observers.

The final vote was taken in the absence of non-Islamist members and representatives of major groups, such as the Coptic Church, workers and farmers, all of whom withdrew from the charter-drafting body following complaints the assembly was dominated by Islamists.

"I will say 'no' in the referendum," said Abanob Yaakub, a law student and member of the 6 April Youth Movement's Democratic Front. Still, Yaakub told Ahram Online that he feared a split in the rejectionist camp between a boycott and a 'no' vote.

"What's important is that we protest until referendum day; we might be forced to hastily call for a 'no' vote if we have to," he said.

The draft constitution is itself under fire. Pundits from the opposition say it cements dictatorial powers for the president and allows for Islamic Law to become the major source of all legislation. They further assert that it is weak in terms of safeguarding social and civil liberties.

While the opposition protested at the presidential palace, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters gathered in Cairo's Madinet Nasr district – some three miles away from the rival rally – to voice support for the looming referendum and draft constitution and call for a 'yes' vote in Saturday's poll.

The draft charter's supporters describe the last-minute withdrawals from the Constituent Assembly by non-Islamist members as a move designed to pressure the assembly into making concessions.

The draft charter, they assert, actually reduces presidential authorities in comparison to Egypt's previous 1971 constitution. Many supporters of the draft constitution also say the document will enshrine Islamic Law, accusing its opponents of standing against Islam.

Short link: