* Opposition to vote against new constitution
* Army cancels "unity" talks
* Egyptians abroad start voting in referendum
By Tamim Elyan and Marwa Awad
CAIRO, Dec 12 Egypt's liberal and secular
opposition said on Wednesday it would back a "no" vote in a
referendum on a divisive new constitution promoted by Islamist
President Mohamed Mursi, calling off a boycott as long as
safeguards are in place for a fair vote.
The army called off "unity" talks involving rival factions,
dealing a blow to efforts to resolve a worsening political
crisis over the referendum and rein in street protests that have
The latest convulsion in Egypt's transition to democracy was
brought on by a decree last month from Mursi in which he
awarded himself sweeping powers to push through the new
constitution, a necessary prelude to parliamentary elections
early next year.
Mursi's move caused huge controversy, dividing the Arab
world's most populous state and bringing thousands of pro- and
anti-government protesters onto the streets in the worst
upheaval since the fall of Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
The unrest has so far claimed seven lives in clashes between
the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition. The army has
yet to use force to keep protesters away from the presidential
palace, now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete
Egyptians abroad began voting at embassies in the referendum
on the new basic law that Mursi fast-tracked through an
Islamist-dominated drafting assembly. The start of the voting
process was a setback for the opposition, which had hoped to
delay the plebiscite.
The absence of a boycott could help ease confrontation on
the streets and give the charter more legitimacy if it passes.
The main opposition coalition says the draft constitution
does not reflect the aspirations of all of Egypt's 83 million
people because of provisions which could give Muslim clerics a
role in shaping laws. It wants a new charter with more
safeguards for minority rights, including for the 10 percent of
Egyptians who are Christian.
Mursi's supporters say the constitution is needed to
continue the transition to democracy. Some deride their
opponents as Mubarak-era "remnants" trying to cling to power.
"We will vote 'no'," opposition politician and former Arab
League chief Amr Moussa told Reuters.
The opposition said that unless the referendum is held with
full supervision by the judiciary, security guarantees and local
and international monitoring, it would still call for a boycott.
It also wants the vote held on one day rather than two.
Leftist Hamdeen Sabahy of the Popular Front said: "The Front
decided to call on the people to take part in the referendum and
reject this draft constitution and vote no.
"If these guarantees aren't in place by the day of the
referendum on Saturday, we will withdraw from it."
The army's attempt to arrange talks appears to have
foundered because of suggestions it was taking on a political
role. Defence Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who is also head of
the armed forces, said on Tuesday he wanted talks which would
not be political in character.
"We will sit together as Egyptians," he said.
But an army official told Reuters on Wednesday that the
event had been called off because of the "media hype" that
erupted implying that the minister was calling for national
dialogue, a politically loaded phrase.
"The army cannot steer the political process and will not be
dragged back into politics," the official said.
Presidency sources said Mursi, who had been expected to
attend, had decided to send the head of the ruling party
The army dominated Egypt throughout the post-colonial era,
providing every president from its ranks until Mubarak was
overthrown last year. After his election in June, Mursi shunted
aside generals who had held interim power after Mubarak, and
appointed a new high command.
Islamists have won parliamentary and presidential elections
since the fall of Mubarak. They want the vote on the new
constitution to go ahead and are confident it will pass, paving
the way for them to win a new parliamentary election next year.
The opposition had argued that the chaotic protests and
counter-protests of the last two weeks meant the referendum
should be postponed. But large opposition rallies this week did
not change Mursi's mind.
State media said the two-day voting plan had been adopted
because many of the judges needed to oversee the vote were
staying away in protest at the decision to hold the referendum.
Voting therefore had to be staggered to move around those judges
willing to cooperate.