CAIRO — One of Egypt's leading opposition figures on Monday pledged continued resistance to his country's Islamist-oriented constitution even if it is declared to have passed, contending that the process was fundamentally illegitimate.
Unofficial tallies say nearly two-thirds voted in favor of the draft constitution, but turnout was so low that opponents are arguing that the vote should be discounted.
Hamdeen Sabahi, who placed third in the nation's first free presidential race over the summer, said in an interview with The Associated Press that the majority of Egypt's people are not Islamists.
He argued that the string of election triumphs by President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood group are the result of unfair electoral practices and key mistakes by the liberal opposition, particularly a lack of unity and organization.
"The Muslim Brotherhood is a minority — this is for sure. They get majority votes because of division within the opposition," he said. "If there is transparency [in voting] and unity among civil groups, then surely the majority will turn from the Brotherhood."
Sabahi said the Islamist groups in the country "for sure have tried to steal" the revolution that toppled authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak neat two years ago — "but we will prevent them."
Sabahi said the National Salvation Front — a union of key opposition forces that coalesced in the fight against the draft constitution — is not calling for civil disobedience in rejection of the Islamist-drafted constitution, but for a new constitution through peaceful means.
The path toward such an outcome appears uncertain at best — especially as Sabahi rejected the notion, somewhat plausible in Egypt, of the military stepping in to undo the inconvenient outcomes of politics.
In a sign of the opposition leadership's efforts to coalesce, Sabahi said the grouping would be led in the interim by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the Vienna-based United Nations nuclear agency.
No confirmation of that was immediately available from ElBaradei.
In the interview, the silver-maned, charismatic former journalist seemed to embody the frustrations of liberal Egyptians today: While championing the democracy and lauding the 2011 revolution that felled Mubarak, they reject the outcome of that revolution, yet seem at something of a loss to cause a change of course.
Tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the streets weeks before the referendum to demand a new assembly with greater diversity write the charter. Instead, an Islamist-dominated assembly hurriedly passed it before a court could rule on the body's legitimacy, and Morsi himself issued decrees, later rescinded, that gave him near absolute powers to push the constitution to a referendum.
Backers of the Brotherhood and others Islamist parties also rallied in support of the charter, leaving the country split and leading to violent clashes between the two camps that killed 10 outside the presidential palace in Cairo this month. That created the impression that street protests can be conjured up to support either side in the current divide.
But only around 30 percent of eligible voters participated in the referendum on the divisive charter. Of that number, unofficial figures estimate that 64 percent voted in support of it.
Sabahi said the low voter turnout shows people were not convinced by the Brotherhood's slogans — nor with the opposition's.
"This means that the battle for politics is concentrated on survival, food, jobs and prices — daily struggles that are the priority of all Egyptians," he said.
Under such circumstances, he said, it was illogical to enshrine the document as a constitution that can be amended only by supermajorities in parliament.
Critics say the new constitution seeks to entrench Islamic rule in Egypt and that the charter does not sufficiently protect the rights of women and minority groups. Morsi and his supporters say the constitution is needed to restore stability in the country, install an elected parliament, build state institutions and renew investor confidence in the economy.
In a reflection of the complex nuances at play, Sabahi refused to describe the current conflict roiling Egypt as a clash between secularism and theocracy, saying that in the Arab world, religion and public life could never be distinct in accordance with the Western model.
Rather, he said, the issue was preventing the Brotherhood from establishing a "tyranny" as a political movement not unlike that of the previous authoritarian regime.
He likened Morsi to the ousted leader, Mubarak, saying the Brotherhood is after absolute power.
"He [Morsi] reached power democratically, but is not exercising power democratically," he said, adding that the Brotherhood "wants to establish a system of tyranny in their benefit."
Regarding the fears of theocracy, Sabahi said, "We are against separation of religion and state ... The intellect of the Arab region, and Egypt, is built essentially on religion and specifically the Islamic religion."
Nonetheless, Sabahi said the opposition would continue to fight the constitution, arguing that the low turnout made it illegitimate.
"From the beginning the National Salvation Front said this constitution does not represent the people," he said. "This constitution is not one of national consensus, but of national division."
He said the NSF would now try to remain united in preparation for possible participation in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
He said the front has no immediate plans to unite under one party, but that as a coalition they could win a majority of seats if electoral laws mandated an end to political proselytizing in mosques and placed a limit on the funds used for political campaigns.
Another key issue for the opposition has been enabling people to vote outside their home district. The absence of this has aided the Islamists, who have the money to bus supporters back home to vote. The opposition, though, has also warned that rigging could be made easier if people vote from any location and point to the current use of Brotherhood-manned buses to transport poor voters.
"I am sure that the non-Islamists are the real majority in Egypt. But the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys strong organization, and the forces that oppose them do not have the same organization or finances," he said.
The Brotherhood emerged as the country's strongest political force after the popular uprising that toppled Mubarak nearly two years ago. They won the most seats in parliament, before it was dissolved by the courts, and won the presidency. Liberal and secular groups have consistently failed to beat the Brotherhood at the polls since.
That was until Sabahi, a charismatic populist, appeared as a surprise presidential contender against Morsi and his rival, Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister, an ex-military man who lured voters with promises of stability.
Sabahi had a last-minute surge after campaigning on promises to help the poor and harkening back to the nationalist, socialist ideology of Gamel Abdel-Nasser, Egypt's president from 1956 to 1970.
Would Sabahi — known as a fervent opponent of Israel — cancel the landmark 1979 peace treaty if he one day ascended to power?
No, he said. The main issues facing Egypt today are resolving internal problems, especially endemic poverty — and he would not risk that priority issue by courting war with a neighbor.
In contrast to the Brotherhood, which has several offices in every Egyptian governorate, Sabahi spoke from the office of a famous Egyptian movie director, who lent him the space.
"The Brotherhood is losing every day. Mohammed Morsi is losing every day," Sabahi insisted, sitting among black and white pictures of Egyptian cinema actors emblematic of the 1960s — a time of resurgent Arab nationalism less complicated by the politics of religion.
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