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by judges, but the powerful judges union voted late Tuesday not to supervise the process, protesting an earlier and now rescinded decree by Mr.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.
"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 Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, have been distributing fliers urging a "yes" vote and putting up posters with the same message. They also have been using mosques to disseminate their message.
The opposition has been boycotting a "national dialogue" hosted by the president, saying it doesn't trust Mr. 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.
Col. Ahmed Mohammed Ali, a military spokesman, 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," Col. Ali said.
That announcement came at the same time the opposition said it was willing to attend the meeting.
Gen. 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 Mr. Morsi's election ended nearly a year and a half of military rule following the February 2011 ouster of Mubarak as president 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 likely was made under pressure from Mr. Morsi, who has been adamant since he took office that the military must stick to its core mission, such as protecting borders. Although Mr. Morsi appointed Gen. el-Sissi, he is not seen as tightly controlled by the president.
The vote for a half-million eligible expatriates overseas could give hints at which direction the referendum is going. Egyptian expatriates in the Gulf are known to lean toward Islamists while others in Europe and Australia, among them large number of Christian migrants, lean more toward liberals.
In the Egyptian Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, a handful of voters showed up after the vote started at 8 a.m. local time (midnight EST). Dr. Mohammed Abdullah said he voted yes because he wants stability, and any changes could be made later.
"We can make whatever amendments we want, but we have to get through this and return to normalcy," he said.
The Middle East News Agency said Egyptian expatriates have up until Saturday to cast ballots in 150 diplomatic missions worldwide.
Two months after passing the referendum, the country is scheduled to have new parliamentary elections. A parliament elected after the uprising was disbanded after courts ruled the elections law was unconstitutional.
AP writer Ahmed al-Haj in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.