Updated Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 06:25 AM
CAIRO — Egypt’s leading opposition group urged its followers Wednesday to vote against an Islamist-inspired draft constitution, ending weeks of indecision over whether antigovernment forces should boycott the referendum, which begins this weekend and pits secularists against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The move by the National Salvation Front is a crucial test of its popularity against President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist supporters. The opposition movement has revived the country’s revolutionary fervor but has been marred by divisions and poor organization, which are expected to be exploited by the Brotherhood’s vast grass roots networks.
The National Salvation Front “decided to call upon the people to go to the polling stations and reject the draft by saying ‘No,’ ” said Hamdeen Sabahi, a former presidential candidate and one of the group’s leaders.
Perhaps sensing a possible setback, he added: “The referendum is not the end of our journey.”
The Front said its decision was contingent upon judicial oversight, international monitors and increased security at polling stations. It is unclear whether those demands can be met. Many judges, angry at a recent power grab by Morsi that weakened the courts, have refused to supervise the referendum. That forced the Islamist leader to announce that voting would be held over two successive Saturdays — beginning this weekend — so participating judges can be rotated throughout the country.
A dialogue for national unity called for by the military between Morsi and different political factions was canceled Wednesday. The armed forces said few organizations agreed to attend. But the military, criticized for its harsh rule of the country after Hosni Mubarak was deposed last year, faced a backlash over perceptions it was meddling in politics months after it had handed power to Morsi.
A compromise appears increasingly elusive as the president pushes for the referendum and the opposition tries to rally voters against a document it fears will strengthen Islamists and jeopardize civil rights and freedom of expression.
That prospect was highlighted Wednesday when a court sentenced Albert Saber, an atheist from a Christian family, to three years in prison for insulting Islam. He was charged with posting Internet links to a video produced in California that denigrated the Prophet Muhammad and ignited protests in September.
The country’s latest crisis intensified in late November, when Morsi expanded his powers and freed his office from judicial oversight. The president has since offered concessions, but — despite clashes that have killed at least eight people — he has refused demands to postpone the referendum until a document they find more representative is written.
Egyptians living abroad began voting Wednesday at embassies on the proposed constitution.
The voting scheme has been so rushed that many voters don’t know where to cast their ballots.
Morsi has asked the army — once his archenemy — to protect public institutions until the voting is finished. Meanwhile, clerics from Al-Azhar University, the most revered institution in Sunni Islam, rallied not with those supporting Morsi but with leftists and liberals against the president.
Egypt’s draft constitution consists of an introduction, an 11-part preamble and 236 articles. Critics have raised concerns over issues, including Islamic law and women’s rights:
Shariah (Islamic) law: Like a previous constitution, the draft states, “Principles of Islamic Shariah are the principal source of legislation.” The draft adds, “The principles of Islamic Shariah include general evidence, foundational rules, rules of jurisprudence, and credible sources,” which critics say opens the door for imposition of strict Islamic law. Countering that is a vague article that reads, “Freedom of belief is an inviolable right. ... The State shall guarantee the freedom to practice religious rites and to establish places of worship for the divine religions, as regulated by law.”
Role of clerics: The draft gives Islamic clerics unprecedented powers: “Al-Azhar Senior Scholars are to be consulted in matters pertaining to Islamic law,” referring to the Cairo-based center of scholarship and rulings in Sunni Islam.
Women’s rights: The draft mentions women in the framework of the traditional Muslim family, adding, “The state shall ensure maternal and child health services free of charge, and enable the reconciliation between the duties of a woman toward her family and her work.” Critics charge this doesn’t protect women from discrimination, but the preamble states: “Equality and equal opportunities are established for all citizens, men and women, without discrimination or nepotism or preferential treatment, in both rights and duties.”
Civil rights: The draft contains language referring to public morals and values, implying that Islamic law would be the determining factor. An article forbids limiting the basic rights of individuals but adds that they “must be practiced in a manner not conflicting with” principles of religious law. There is also a ban on insulting “religious messengers and prophets,” opening the door to arrests of bloggers and other activists.
News media: Independent publications closed for a day to protest the lack of a ban on arresting journalists. The draft says: “Freedom of the press, printing, publication and mass media shall be guaranteed. The media shall be free and independent.”
Religious minorities: The draft guarantees the practices of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, raising concerns of persecution of other sects. It also allows religious practices on condition that they do not “violate public order.”
Military: The president heads the national security council, but the defense minister is the commander in chief of the armed forces and “appointed from among its officers.” That ensures the military an independent position. Control of the military budget is not mentioned.
The Associated Press