CAIRO — Former President Jimmy Carter's center said Thursday it will not deploy monitors for Egypt's constitutional referendum amid deepening polarization over the process of adopting a document to guide how the country is to be governed following its 2011 revolution.
The center was the main international group monitoring earlier Egyptian votes. Its absence increases the likelihood that if the constitution backed by President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies passes, the rushed process leading to the Saturday referendum will further undermine the charter's legitimacy.
Egypt was plunged into political crisis three weeks ago when Mr. Morsi issued a decree giving himself near-absolute power. The president rescinded the decree in the face of broad criticism and huge street protests, but not before a panel charged with drawing up the country's constitution pushed through a draft in a marathon Dec. 1 overnight session and the president ordered a referendum two weeks later.
Mr. Morsi's supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has gripped Egypt since the March 2011 overthrow of autocratic leader Hosni Mubarak in a popular uprising. His opponents say minority concerns have been ignored and the constitution is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow Islamists to restrict civil liberties.
Compounding the sense of crisis are huge rival protests that draw tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands. On Dec. 5 pro-Morsi supporters attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace, leading to street clashes in which at least 10 people were killed – the worst political violence since Mr. Morsi was elected president. Both sides have planned new mass rallies on Friday.
Amid rising tensions, the Carter Center – which monitored Egypt's past parliamentary and presidential elections – said it would not be able to conduct "a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of the referendum process." In a statement, it cited the government's late release of regulations for election monitoring.
Also Thursday, 20 Egyptian civil rights groups issued a joint statement warning of possible election fraud and expressing concern that a state-run human rights council has taken charge of issuing monitoring permits, which in the past were obtained directly from the elections committee.
"The undersigned organizations are deeply concerned about the potential of rigging during or after the referendum," the statement says.
On Wednesday, the umbrella National Salvation Front called on Egyptians to cast ballots against the document. Groups said Thursday they have produced videos against the constitution, and one party said it will send loudspeaker trucks to tour Cairo urging a "No" vote.
The opposition has left open the possibility of a boycott if judges and monitors are absent and if the state fails to provide protection at polling stations.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei, who leads the Salvation Front, said Wednesday that "insistence on a referendum in an explosive, polarized, chaotic and lawless environment is leading [the] country to the brink." The Front says Morsi must delay the vote.
The fracas over the constitution and the violence have fed into wider fears among many Egyptians that the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to monopolize power after 80 years facing frequent bouts of repression and imprisonment by mostly military-backed, secular-leaning rulers.