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Vote no or boycott? Egypt opposition undecided as referendum looms

Anger over a draft constitution popular with Islamists has galvanized Egypt’s opposition. But secular opponents of President Morsi still haven’t decided what to do about Saturday’s referendum.

As thousands of protesters gathered at the presidential palace in Egypt to call for the delay of Saturday’s constitutional referendum, the leaders of Egypt’s main opposition coalition huddled in meetings, debating strategy.

Should they urge Egyptians to participate in the Dec. 15 referendum and vote against the constitution? Or continue rejecting the vote’s legitimacy and protesting, in hopes it will be delayed?

Spurred by President Mohamed Morsi‘s move to sideline the judiciary and remove checks on his power and his decision to rush a referendum on a controversial constitution, Egypt’s opposition has formed its most united front yet, putting aside many of the differences that hobbled it in the past year and a half.

The widespread anger at Mr. Morsi’s actions seemed like an opportunity for the opposition to fix its past mistakes.

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But now, just days before the vote is to be held, members of the group are still arguing about which strategy to pursue. Some want to maintain the position that the referendum is illegitimate. According to those briefed on the discussions, that camp includes Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the United Nations nuclear watchdog and a Nobel Peace Prize winner who regularly makes headlines but has minimal sway on the street. Others want to mobilize the grassroots for a vote against the constitution. 

Thousands of people converged on the presidential palace tonight to protest the referendum, while thousands of people demonstrated elsewhere to show their support for the president and the constitution. 

The opposition coalition, which calls itself the National Salvation Front, has brought a broad swathe of the opposition under its auspices. It includes secular, liberal, and leftist parties, as well as former presidential candidates like nationalist Hamdeen Sabbahi, who garnered about 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections, and Amr Moussa, who took about 11 percent. Former presidential candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former reformistMuslim Brotherhood leader who took 17 percent of the first round presidential vote, did not join the group, but his party is also urging Egyptians to vote against the constitution. 

Egypt’s Judges Club announced today that its members had decided not to oversee the referendum, a move that could make holding the vote difficult, depending on how many judges go along with the decision. Under election law, judges have to supervise polling stations where votes are cast, and the leader of the Judges Club said 90 percent of members agreed to boycott the vote. However, the head of the High Elections Commission said today that there are sufficient judges to oversee the vote, and that it would proceed on time. 

Some parties in the opposition coalition have already started campaigning for a “no” vote, but unofficially so as not to jeopardize the unity of the opposition coalition.

Critics say the National Salvation Front blew what was a good opportunity to harness public anger, both by delaying its decision and flirting with a boycott. If parties were going to mobilize people to vote against the constitution, they could have started that work weeks ago. They are up against the Muslim Brotherhood’s extensive political machine, which supports the president and has a vast organizational network that excels at bringing people to the polls. 

“The opposition has to make their position really clear, and they need to do it very quickly because they don’t have much time,” says H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo– based fellow at the Brookings Institution. Their delay in making a decision, he says, “damaged their credibility in front of Egyptian citizens, who are not only going to be thinking about the referendum on Saturday, but also about parliamentary elections.”

Boycotting failed miserably for secular revolutionaries in previous votes during Egypt’s transition. Islamist parties won more than 70 percent of the parliamentary seats when some revolutionaries boycotted the vote. 

But those who want to keep protesting rather than go to the polls say they must keep a united front, and that all parties making up the opposition should reject the entire constitution drafting process and the referendum.

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“The minute you push for a ‘no’ vote, you legitimize the referendum,” says Assem Memon, deputy managing director of the secular Free Egyptians Party, in explaining why some want to stay away from the polls. 

Those in this camp are hoping large protests today will encourage the judiciary to decide not to oversee the vote, which would prevent the poll from going forward.