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How to escalate
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 12 - 12 - 2012

Opposition forces, led by the National Salvation Front (NSF), are up in arms over Saturday's constitutional referendum and President Mohamed Morsi's constitutional declaration. Tens of thousands of Egyptians are also showing their opposition, mainly at the presidential palace.
The protests also come in the wake of an anticipated decision by the government to increase prices by imposing higher taxes on several goods. In return, several chants condemned the decision.
Opponents insist on maintaining pressure on Saturday's controversial constitutional referendum, which they want to be postponed until national consensus can be reached on the constitution's contents, describing it as unrepresentative, drafted as it was by an Islamist-led Constituent Assembly.
The large brick barriers erected by the military around the palace since Monday did not stop the protesters from crossing through openings they managed to make. They chanted “Down with the Muslim Brotherhood”, “Down with the rule of the supreme guide” and “Two cannot be trusted; the army and the Brotherhood”.
Egyptians from all social classes were present at the demonstration, and some well-known revolutionary slogans were heard, including “Bread, freedom, social justice”, to the more extreme “The people demand the overthrow of the regime”.
The NSF is an umbrella group comprising major liberal and leftist parties and other independent groups. It is led by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed Al-Baradei, Egypt's former foreign minister and ex-Arab League chief Amr Moussa and leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahi. The NSF announced its rejection of the referendum and called for continued mass protests.
On Tuesday, while the opposition protested at the presidential palace, the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi supporters gathered in Cairo's Madinet Nasr district — some three miles away from the rival rally — to voice support for the looming referendum and draft constitution and to call for a “yes” vote in Saturday's poll.
Rival mass rallies have become an almost daily occurrence in Cairo, and clashes between Islamists and the secular-leaning opposition on 5 December killed eight people and injured more than 750.
The NSF on Wednesday called on the masses to vote “no” on the constitution instead of boycotting the poll.
Morsi's decision to hold the referendum clearly divided the opposition leaders gathered under the NSF banner. The big question was whether to escalate protests and prevent the referendum from taking place, or launch a campaign calling upon Egyptians to vote “no”, claiming the draft constitution fell short of the expectations they had for Egypt after the 25 January Revolution.
Protesters agree that they will keep up pressure on the presidency in hopes of seeing the poll delayed, but take different positions on what should be done on Saturday — boycott or vote “no”. Both the protesters and opposition groups are keeping in mind that with limited judicial supervision, the voting could be rigged.
Most judges on Tuesday rejected any role in overseeing the country's constitutional referendum, believing that the new constitutional declaration issued this week only froze a previous controversial declaration rather than scrap it. Last week's edict gave Morsi sweeping powers and immunity from judicial oversight, effectively sidelining judges.
As a consequence, instead of holding the referendum only on Saturday, the electoral commission announced that a vote will be held on 15 December and a week later on 22 December due to the limited number of judges overseeing the ballot.
The process by which the proposed constitution was drafted was severely criticised after the head of the Constituent Assembly Hossam Al-Ghiriani rushed it through the final phase of the drafting process. A final marathon session in which assembly members hurriedly approved the document weeks before the deadline given for the draft's completion disturbed many observers.
The final vote was taken in the absence of non-Islamist members and representatives of major groups, such as the Coptic Church, civil parties, workers and farmers, all of whom withdrew from the charter-drafting body following complaints the assembly was dominated by Islamists.
On Wednesday the NSF had announced it was going to attend the so-called “unity talks” called for by the army to help end the political crisis only before the latter postponed the meeting indefinitely without providing further information. The army's call was seen by some observers as an attempt by the military to seek a renewed political role. The military managed the country for 18 months from the time of the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak to the time Morsi became president. They relinquished power after Morsi forced the military's two top generals into retirement.
It had been reported that the NSF would attend the army's unity talks represented mainly by Al-Baradei, Sabahi, Moussa and another NSF member Mohamed Abul-Ghar, with Al-Baradei suggesting a halt of the referendum until all controversial issues were settled. The front boycotted talks last week convened by the president.
Defence Minister Abdel-Fatah Al-Sisi, who is also the head of the Armed Forces, had said the talks were not intended to be political in nature. “We [would] sit together as Egyptians,” he said.
Cracks in the opposition's unity first appeared last weekend when one of its leading figures, veteran opposition politician Ayman Nour, accepted an invitation by Morsi to attend a national dialogue meeting. On Monday, another key opposition figure, Al-Sayed Al-Badawi of the Wafd Party, met Morsi at the presidential palace.
Al-Badawi later issued a statement saying he remained loyal to the opposition's goals of scrapping the draft charter and postponing the vote.
Speaking to CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Monday evening, Al-Baradei said the Egyptian opposition considered the whole constitution-drafting process “illegitimate”.
“We will do whatever is necessary to get back to why this revolution is all about freedom and dignity,” he said.
“We are hoping that Mr Morsi will rescind his decision, would really come to his senses,” Al-Baradei said. “You cannot adopt a constitution which at least 50 per cent of the Egyptian people oppose, that defies its basic rights and freedoms and tries to have a new dictator in the making.
“We are at a cross in the road,” Al-Baradei said. “Either we will have a country that is civil, which respects women's rights, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, children's rights and a balance of power, or we will have a new dictatorship with a religious flavour.”
When asked by Amanpour why the opposition was attacking a democratically elected president, Al-Baradei said it was not contesting his position but his policies.

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