- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 12, 2012

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt‘s opposition alliance urged supporters on Wednesday to vote “no” in the referendum on a disputed constitution rather than boycotting it, hours after the Islamist government forged ahead by starting overseas voting in diplomatic missions for expatriates.

But the opposition said it still may boycott the vote starting in Egypt on Saturday if its conditions are not met.

The start of overseas voting after weeks of mass opposition protests showed the determination of President Mohammed Morsi to go forward with the process despite a three-week political crisis and deepening polarization over the proposed constitution.

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 do not oversee the vote and the state does not provide security at the polls. The country’s major judges union said Tuesday it would boycott the referendum and judges would 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 Mr. 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 Islamist-dominated constitution drafting committee rushed through the document in a marathon session last month. Islamists say its approval will restore political stability and allow the rebuilding of the institutions of government. They say it contains new articles banning many of the human rights abuses that were commonplace under Mr. Morsi’s ousted predecessor, Hosni Mubarak.

Liberals, secularists, Christians and other critics say the draft is full of obscurely worded clauses that could give clerics a say over legality of legislation and allow civil rights to be curtailed by hard-line interpretations of Islamic Shariah law. They say the 100-member constituent assembly tasked to draft the constitution was packed with Islamists and ultraconservatives who ignored other groups’ concerns and sped the draft through.

The full referendum was initially scheduled to take place on Dec. 15, but in a last minute decree on Tuesday, Mr. Morsi ordered the voting stretched into another round on Dec. 22. Voting must be overseen by judges, but the powerful judges union voted late Tuesday not to supervise the process, protesting an earlier and now rescinded decree by Mr. Morsi placing him above judicial oversight.

It was not immediately clear whether the judges now will oversee the voting after the opposition said it would participate in the referendum. But the judges all along have said their stand is inspired by what they see as Mr. Morsi’s “assault” on the judiciary and the siege of the nation’s highest court by protesting Morsi supporters. The court was widely expected to disband the constitution-writing assembly.

Some judges still may participate, but the boycott is likely to damage the legitimacy of the process and thus the legitimacy of the constitution itself among much of the public.

Zaghloul el-Balshi, head of the referendum’s organizing committee, said on Tuesday that 9,000 judges had agreed to oversee the voting. His claim could not be independently verified. The total number of polling stations in Egypt reaches nearly 13,000, each of which normally requires a judge. Aides to MR. Morsi said before that judges are only needed to supervise the 9,000 main stations, while government employees or university professors can fill in at the rest.

The opposition front had been expected to call for civil disobedience, such as general strikes, to escalate the recent mass protests against Mr. Morsi. 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 Mr. 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.

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