Tanks are stationed outside the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo.… (Marco Longari / AFP/Getty…)
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 Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist supporters. The opposition movement has revived the country's revolutionary fervor but has been marred by division 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. "The people will rally at the polls and have a chance to topple the constitution."
Perhaps sensing a possible setback, he added, "The referendum is not the end of our journey."
The group said its decision was contingent upon judicial oversight, international monitors and increased security at polling stations during the referendum.
It is unclear whether those demands can be met. Many judges, angry about a recent decree by Morsi that weakened the courts, have refused to supervise the balloting. That forced the Islamist leader to announce that voting would be held over two successive Saturdays so participating judges can be rotated around the country.
A dialogue for national unity between Morsi and various political factions, called for by the military, was canceled Wednesday. The armed forces said few organizations had agreed to attend. But the military, criticized for its harsh rule of the country after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed last year, faced a backlash over the perception that it was meddling in politics months after it had handed power to Morsi.
A compromise appears increasingly elusive as the president pushes ahead with the referendum and the opposition attempts to rally voters against the draft constitution at the center of it. The opposition fears the document will bolster Islamist influence and jeopardize civil rights and freedom of expression.
That prospect was highlighted Wednesday when a court sentenced Alber Saber, an atheist from a Christian family, to three years in prison for insulting Islam. He was charged with posting Internet links to "Innocence of Muslims," a film produced in California that denigrated the prophet Muhammad and ignited anti-American protests in the Muslim world in September.
Egypt'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 the opposition's demands to postpone the referendum until a document it finds more representative is written.
Morsi's aims advanced Wednesday when Egyptians living abroad began voting on the proposed constitution.
The turmoil has embittered many Egyptians at a time of deepening economic and political uncertainty nearly two years since the overthrow of Mubarak. Lines have hardened between Islamists and secularists over how deeply religion should influence public life in the nation, viewed as a barometer for new governments emerging in the Arab world.
Events have been so rushed that many voters don't even know where to cast their ballots. Others have a general idea but are suspicious of the outcome. The presidential palace is barricaded and barbed wire glints on streets and atop walls.
Matters grew more curious this week when Morsi asked the army — once his archenemy — to protect public institutions until the voting was complete. Then, on Tuesday night, clerics from Al Azhar University, the most revered institution in Sunni Islam, rallied not with those supporting Morsi but instead with leftists and liberals marching against the president. Many Egyptians feel dangerously adrift in a parallel universe.
"Divisions and confusion reign supreme in Egypt," said a recent headline on the Ahram Online news website. "Ordinary citizens do not know what to expect next from government; Islamists and liberals cannot find middle ground; Brotherhood and Salvation [Front] differ from within; army and police wait and see."
Such frustration has hurt the Muslim Brotherhood's image. Morsi, who was elected president as the group's candidate in June, won about 51% of the vote, suggesting that the Brotherhood, which disappointed many in the months after Mubarak's downfall, was vulnerable.
The National Salvation Front has drawn Egyptians into the streets with the message that the Brotherhood's Islamist agenda threatens a tolerant society. But many Egyptians, working-class and poor, view demonstrations and arguments over the constitution as distractions from the country's economic and security problems.