CAIRO // Egypt's opposition groups were yesterday leaning towards boycotting a vote on the constitution, due on Saturday.
And they called for supporters to continue street protests against what they call president Mohammed Morsi's path to autocracy.
Ahmed Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians party, said protesters who filled the streets in the past week opposed Mr Morsi's "Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship".
That suggested the opposition was rushing to widen its protest beyond his recent declarations and what they call a flawed constitution.
"The president did not leave any room for negotiations," Mr Said said. "It is very clear that he has issued a serious challenge to the will of the people and the situation is getting uglier every day."
He said his party was pushing for a boycott of the constitutional referendum because, "if we take part in this referendum, it means were are adding legitimacy to this constitution, which is something we don't want to do".
Mr Morsi issued a new decree early yesterday morning, erasing the sweeping powers he gave himself on November 22 that shielded him from judicial oversight.
The move amounted to a concession in the eyes of the members of a national dialogue session convened on Saturday, which was attended mostly by representatives from Islamist groups but no key members of the opposition.
Officials from the National Salvation Front, an umbrella opposition group, said in a press conference last night that they "completely reject" the planned referendum vote and the constitutional draft. They called on protesters to continue demonstrations against the president's actions, but did not directly spell out whether they would push for a boycott or a no vote.
The group believes the process of writing the new constitution was not inclusive and yielded a charter that would pave the way for the Brotherhood's domination of the state and political life. More than 20 of the members of the 100-member constitutional committee walked out of proceedings in protest of what they said was its domination by Islamists.
Tensions were still running high yesterday, especially after a group of fighter jets roared over Cairo in what presidential sources told the Egypt Independent newspaper were "routine training" exercises. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had warned in a statement on Saturday that Egypt would descend into a "dark tunnel with disastrous consequences" if the two sides could not reach an agreement. During the uprising against Hosni Mubarak last year, fighter jets buzzed low over Tahrir Square in a show of force.
Protesters again demonstrated yesterday in front of the presidential palace and in Tahrir Square, but their numbers were lower than on previous nights.
The biggest challenge for the opposition is the strong possibility that the constitution will be passed in Saturday's vote. Mr Morsi is backed by a vast network of supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood, in which he was a former senior official. In every election since Mubarak resigned last year, they have proven themselves to be the most powerful political group in Egypt, winning nearly half the seats in the first parliamentary elections and pushing Mr Morsi through in presidential elections in June.
"The opposition's calculations might be that they have no chance to win, so by boycotting they can avoid the embarrassment of the Islamists proving their contention that the majority supports the constitution," said Mazen Hassan, a professor at Cairo University. "We should not underestimate the Brotherhood's ability to mobilise in elections, especially after the results of the last year and a half."
Either way, the outlook is grim for the opposition, he said. If they boycott, the president's supporters will more easily win the referendum and add ammunition to his claims that a minority is trying to dictate to the majority. If the constitution was voted down, then Islamists still stand a strong chance of wielding majority influence in a new constitutional committee because the declaration calls for direct elections to replace its members in the case of a no vote.
Mr Morsi's new decree appeared to win over some of his critics, including members of the legal community who felt he had overstepped his role by blocking the judiciary from overseeing presidential decisions. An open strike by judges who opposed Mr Morsi's initial decree ends today, according to a statement issued yesterday evening.
Tariq Al Bishri, a prominent Islamist legal scholar who had been critical of Mr Morsi's November 22 decree, said yesterday that the new decree was a step toward solving the political crisis. He added that the law required the government to call for a referendum 15 days after the constitutional committee approved it, so Mr Morsi had no choice but to proceed.
"I'm still objecting to some of the articles of the constitution, but the National Dialogue's solution to let amendments be made before the vote can solve those issues," he said. "The new decree is good because it cancelled the previous decree and allowed for voting."
But it was still unclear whether the supreme constitutional court (SCC) would issue a decision on the legality of the constitutional committee before the referendum. The SCC threw the political landscape into disarray over the summer when it dissolved the parliament because part of those elections were found to be unconstitutional.
The court has been deliberating over a related case: was the law issued by that parliament to establish the constitutional committee constitutional?
Even if the SCC rules it was indeed unconstitutional, it does not necessarily mean that the referendum on the constitution would be cancelled, said Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University in the US who has been closely following legal developments in Egypt's transition.
"The SCC could do that but it would not be inevitable," he said. "I always thought that the SCC would either run out the clock or merely strike down the law without requiring the constitutional assembly to be dissolved immediately, but merely referring that matter back to the administrative court which in turn would run out the clock."