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Egyptian opposition backs off call to boycott vote

A soldier stands in front of a mural depicting Egypt's former President Hosni Mubarak (R), former Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi (C) and Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi drawn on the wall of the presidential palace in Cairo December 12, 2012.

Khaled Abdullah/REUTERS

Egypt's disparate opposition movement is throwing in the towel in its battle to force Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to cancel a referendum on a controversial, hastily drafted constitution that now will likely pass.

The national ballot, now scheduled to proceed on Dec. 15 and 22, would approve a basic law that the opposition believes is short on fundamental freedoms and long on Islamic principles. It was the product of an accelerated drafting period ordered last month by Mr. Morsi and carried out by an almost entirely Islamist constituent assembly – after secular and minority representatives walked out complaining of the assembly's imbalance.

The National Salvation Front, the country's largest opposition bloc, announced Wednesday it was not even calling for people to boycott the vote, provided the referendum was properly supervised by Egyptian judges.

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"The Front decided to call upon the people to go to the polling stations and reject the draft by saying 'No,' " said Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished third in June's presidential election, and is part of the Front's leadership.

The decision to vote in the referendum is a climbdown for a movement that last week pushed through barbed wire and scaled concrete barriers to take up positions outside the presidential palace, covering the compound's walls with graffiti that depicted President Morsi with a red clown's nose.

Along the way, the protesters clashed with thousands of Morsi supporters, who sought to safeguard the palace of the man who was the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate for president. Seven people died in the fighting, and more than 100 protesters were held prisoner for two days, many of them saying they were tortured by Brotherhood thugs.

The sound of silence outside the presidential palace in suburban Heliopolis Wednesday night spoke volumes of how quickly the opposition has quieted down. Perhaps 100 people stood opposite an equal number of soldiers and some 20 armoured personnel carriers and tanks. No slogans were shouted. One young man meekly raised a V-for-victory sign when a reporter looked his way, but there was no enthusiasm or support from his colleagues. In small clusters the young people discussed the meaning of their leadership's agreeing to let the referendum proceed.

Only the day before, tens of thousands of protesters had rallied in the same spot against holding the referendum.

Sally Sami, one of the young organizers of the initial uprising in January of last year, says she agrees with the call to stand down.

"We're dealing with a regime that does not recognize the voices who sincerely oppose this constitution and the way it is being forced on us," she said.

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It was clear the vote was going ahead anyway and "a boycott wasn't going to impress them."

The opposition also wants the referendum to be conducted on just one day, not two. The Morsi decision to have it staggered over two days was to allow for judicial monitoring, made difficult when many of the country's judges announced they would not oversee the voting, as a protest against the President's disrespectful treatment of the judiciary.

While opposition leaders say with a straight face that they can get a majority of voters casting "No" ballots to defeat the constitution, others are more realistic.

"If we can get just 40 per cent of the vote, we'll stop it from proceeding," said Ms. Sami, one of the few young protesters who went to work politically as soon as Hosni Mubarak was ousted as president early last year. "A constitution needs the consensus of the people," she argued, "not just 50 per cent plus one of the votes."

"If they can't get 60-per-cent support, this constitution is finished."

The Free Egyptians Party, a liberal group whose supporters include many of the country's Christians, also put on a realistic face.

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"The constitution is a decisive battle but not the final one," said party spokesman Ahmed Khairi. "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.

The bottom line, even the opposition acknowledges, is that the country can't continue in chaos. The good will and prospects of tourism and foreign investment that came with the fall of the Mubarak regime have been squandered over the past few weeks as the government ceased to function properly and the state of the already precarious economy grew worse.

On Tuesday, Mr. Morsi asked the International Monetary Fund to postpone for a month a $4.8-billion lifeline the IMF had agreed to provide to Egypt. Mr. Morsi said he needed the time to persuade Egyptians of the necessity of a package of austerity measures on which the loan is conditioned.

On Sunday, Mr. Morsi signed on to the package that included tax hikes on items such as cigarettes and mobile phones, an act that drew yet another avalanche of protest. Hours later, the President revoked the decision and contacted the IMF to delay the loan.

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