Egyptians Stage Overnight Rallies as Referendum Nears

Egyptian expatriates began voting in a referendum on a new constitution, as the main opposition to President Mohamed Mursi urged voters to reject the charter.

Egyptian embassies were opened for voters who can cast ballots in person or by mail until Dec. 15, when the first phase of the domestic vote is due to be held, with a second one due on Dec. 22, the official Middle East News Agency said.

While rallies late yesterday by supporters and opponents of the constitution were peaceful, clashes between the rival camps last week left at least ten people dead. The unrest threatens to derail Egypt’s efforts to establish a stable democracy and rebuild the economy after last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The government yesterday postponed a loan accord with the International Monetary Fund.

“Whatever it takes, Mursi and the Brotherhood are going to find a way to hold the referendum,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar. “The Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy now is to dig in until referendum day, and they feel that they will be vindicated by the results.”

The decision to hold the referendum on successive Saturdays may lead some opposition groups to boycott it.

Hamdeen Sabahi, who finished third in the presidential vote, said the National Salvation Front, the biggest opposition umbrella group, would urge supporters to take part and cast “no” ballots only if the vote was held on a single day and security and judicial supervision were adequate. The Front said in an e-mailed statement that “we will withdraw our participation and will urge the people to do the same” if those guarantees aren’t provided.

‘Real Chance’

“People have a real chance to bring down the constitution through the ballot box,” Sabahi told reporters in Cairo, though he said the Front’s preferred solution was to postpone the referendum for two months.

The vote will be held on different days in different parts of the country to make supervision easier, state-run Ahram Gate reported earlier. The Judges Club said most of its members won’t supervise the referendum, the head of the association, Ahmed El-Zind, told reporters in Cairo yesterday. The draft charter falls short on “human rights and freedoms,” he said.

The opposition argues that the constitution was drafted by a panel dominated by Islamists that ignored other views and produced a text that fails to safeguard rights and freedoms. The head of that panel, Hossam el-Gheriani, today urged Egyptians to turn out and vote.

Democracy Working

“It’s time for every citizen to express their view,” he said on state television. “Accept the result of the referendum, whatever it may be, and let democracy work.”

Mursi has enlisted the army to help police ensure security, after weeks of political tensions and protests sparked by the president’s Nov. 22 decree expanding his powers and his refusal to alter the referendum timetable.

The worst violence took place last week outside the presidential palace. El-Husseiny Abu Deif, a reporter for local newspaper al-Fagr, died today from injuries sustained after he was shot in the head while covering the clashes, the al-Shorouk news website reported today.

Reports Without Borders said on Dec. 6 that Mursi’s supporters had fired on journalists. Human Rights Watch today called on Egypt’s prosecutors to investigate reports that Muslim Brotherhood members illegally detained and abused protesters.

The Brotherhood says its rallies have been peaceful and has blamed the violence on “thugs” and supporters of the Mubarak regime.

IMF Delay

Egypt’s benchmark stock index rallied today after last night’s peaceful rallies, adding 2.8 percent. It’s still down more than 5 percent since Mursi’s Nov. 22 decree. The pound, subject to a managed float, extended losses today, dropping 0.1 percent to 6.159 per dollar.

Finance Minister Momtaz El-Saieed said yesterday that Egypt asked the International Monetary Fund to postpone a decision on its application for a $4.8 billion loan, due next week, until at least January. The government this week suspended an increase in sales taxes that was part of its IMF-backed program.

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