By Marc Burleigh
By Marc Burleigh
CAIRO, Dec 12, 2012 (AFP)
Egypt’s crisis showed no sign of easing on Wednesday as the army delayed unity talks meant to ease political divisions and the opposition set near-impossible demands for not boycotting a constitutional referendum.
Voting on the controversial Islamist-backed draft charter is due to start on Saturday, with a second round scheduled for a week later following a last-minute decision by the electoral commission to spread polling over two days.
Egyptians abroad have already started casting their votes in embassies and consulates in 150 countries, the official MENA news agency said.
Mass demonstrations for and against the referendum called by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi took place in Cairo late on Tuesday.
But there was no repeat of the violent clashes between Morsi supporters and foes that left seven people dead and hundreds hurt last week.
The army, which has deployed troops and tanks to protect the presidential palace in Cairo, said it was postponing to an unspecified “later date” talks it had scheduled for Wednesday between Morsi and the opposition.
Reactions to its invitations to the dialogue “were not at the level wished for,” the military said in a statement on its official Facebook page.
The opposition National Salvation Front, which said it would participate in the meeting, appealed to its supporters to turn out for the referendum and vote ‘no’ to the draft charter.
But it warned it would call for a boycott if tough conditions were not met.
“We call to Egyptians to go to polling stations to refuse the proposed constitution and to vote no,” it said in a statement read by a spokesman at a news conference.
That position would harden to a boycott call if Morsi’s government did not organise the voting on a single day — this coming Saturday — as originally planned, and if judges and international poll monitors did not oversee it.
Those conditions appeared near-impossible for Morsi to meet. A key group of judges has already said it will not oversee the vote. Pro-Morsi judges would be stretched too thin to monitor the referendum in one day.
Michael Wahid Hanna, a political analyst at US think-tank The Century Foundation, told AFP that, given the ability of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood to mobilise grassroots support, the odds were good that the referendum would pass, although it was not “an absolute certainty.”
If it did, though, “it would be problematic for the future” because it would politically polarise all future decisions that Morsi’s administration would have to make, big or small.
“If you overreach in this fashion, it will provoke a reaction and extend instability,” Hanna said, warning of “the spectre of violence”.
The military has already said it fears the Arab world’s most populous country is headed for a disastrous “dark tunnel” unless the two sides talk. It has warned it will not allow the situation to worsen.
The United States said there were “real and legitimate questions” about the referendum process and urged Egypt’s army, which it provides with $1.3 billion (1.0 billion euros) each year, “to exercise restraint, to respect the right of peaceful protest.”
The prolonged crisis is also intensifying economic uncertainty.
The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday put on hold a $4.8-billion loan Egypt has sought to fill budget gaps it will face in the 2013-2014 fiscal year.