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Egypt's opposition likely to boycott constitutional vote

Opposition forces appear likely to boycott Saturday's constitutional vote, despite president Mohammed Morsi's backflip yesterday that erased the sweeping powers he gave himself last month.

CAIRO // Opposition forces today appeared likely to boycott Saturday's constitutional vote, as they called for their supporters to continue street protests against what they have described as president Mohammed Morsi's "autocratic government".

Ahmed Said, the head of the liberal Free Egyptians party, said the protesters who filled the streets over the past week opposed Mr Morsi's "Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship", suggesting that opposition groups were rushing to widen their protest beyond his recent declarations and what they have called a "flawed" constitution.

"The president did not leave any room for negotiations," he 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."

Mr Said said his party was pushing for a boycott of the yes-or-no vote on the constitution on December 15 because "if we take part in this referendum, it means we are adding legitimacy to this constitution, which is something we don't want to do".

Mr Morsi issued a new constitutional declaration early yesterday morning, erasing the sweeping powers he had given himself on November 22 that shielded his decisions from judicial oversight. The move amounted to a concession in the eyes of the members of a national dialogue session convened on Saturday that was attended mostly by representatives from Islamist groups, but no key members of the opposition.

The National Salvation Front, an umbrella group for opposition forces, said the new decree was a hollow gesture because the president did not cancel the referendum. The group said it believed 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, including Coptic Christians and liberals, walked out of proceedings last month in protest to what they said was its domination by Islamists.

Tensions were still running high on Sunday, 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 Mubarak last year, fighter jets buzzed low over Tahrir Square in a show of force.

The biggest challenge for the opposition forces 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, where he is a former senior official. In every election since Hosni Mubarak resigned last year, they have proven themselves to be the most powerful political force in Egypt, winning nearly half the seats in the first parliamentary elections and pushing Mr Morsi to the lead in presidential elections in June.

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 last month by blocking the judiciary from overseeing presidential decisions.

Tariq Al Bishri, a prominent Islamist legal scholar critical of Mr Morsi's November 22 decree, said that the new edict 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 a related case on whether the law issued by that parliament to establish the constitutional committee was 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, 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."


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