CAIRO (AP) -- Egypt's main opposition alliance called for a "No" vote in the referendum on a disputed constitution rather than a boycott, hours after Islamist President Mohammed Morsi's government forged ahead by starting overseas voting in diplomatic missions for expatriates.
The opposition's decision did not dispel the atmosphere of a nation in crisis, deeply polarized over the referendum that has stoked three weeks of turmoil on the streets. The opposition still plans more protests and the country's judges are still on strike over a decree by Morsi, since rescinded, that placed him above judicial oversight. The military is inching back into politics. And if the referendum passes, there is potential for even greater upheaval.
There are also growing concerns about the already flailing economy Egypt on Tuesday requested a postponement of a $4.8 billion IMF loan after Morsi, fearing a popular backlash at a time of already heightened tensions, suspended a package of tax hikes that had been part of a program to reduce the huge budget deficit.
The opposition said it still may boycott the vote starting in Egypt on Saturday if its conditions are not met.
Hamdeen Sabahi, one of the leaders of the opposition National Salvation Front, said at a news conference the alliance would urge its supporters to boycott if judges do not oversee the vote and the state does not provide security at the polls. The country's major judges' union said Tuesday it would boycott the referendum, abstaining from their traditional role of oversight at the polls.
"The Front decided to call upon the people to go to the polling stations and reject the draft by saying 'No,'" said Sabahi, a leftist politician who finished a close third in the June presidential election narrowly won by Morsi. "The people will rally at the polls and have a chance to topple the constitution by saying 'No,'" he said, reading from a prepared statement.
The Islamist-dominated constitution drafting committee rushed through the document in a marathon session last month. Islamists say its approval will restore political stability and allow the rebuilding of the institutions of government. They say it contains new articles banning many of the human rights abuses that were commonplace under Morsi's ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak, whose 29-year regime was ousted in a popular uprising nearly two years ago.
Liberals, secularists, Christians, and other critics say the draft is full of obscurely worded clauses that could give clerics a say over legality of legislation and allow civil rights to be curtailed by hardline interpretations of Islamic Shariah law. They say the 100-member constituent assembly tasked to draft the constitution was packed with Islamists and ultraconservatives who ignored other groups' concerns and sped the draft through.
The nationwide referendum was initially scheduled to take place on Dec. 15, but in a last minute decree on Tuesday, Morsi ordered the voting stretched into another round on Dec. 22. Voting must be overseen by judges but the powerful judges' union voted Tuesday not to supervise the process, protesting an earlier and now rescinded decree by Morsi placing him above judicial oversight. Their absence would throw the legitimacy of the vote into and thus the legitimacy of the constitution itself.
It was not immediately clear whether the judges will now oversee the voting after the opposition said it would participate in the referendum. But the judges have all along said their stand is inspired by what they see as Morsi' assault" on the judiciary and the siege of the nation's highest court by Islamists loyal to Morsi. The court was widely expected to disband the constitution writing assembly in a session scheduled for Dec. 2. The panel rushed the vote on the draft on Nov. 29-30 and Morsi ordered the referendum on Dec. 1.
Zaghloul el-Balshi, head of the referendum's organizing committee, said on Tuesday that 9,000 judges had agreed to oversee the voting. His claim could not be independently verified. The total number of polling stations in Egypt is nearly 13,000, each of which normally requires a judge. Aides to Morsi said before that judges are only needed to supervise the 9,000 main stations, while government employees or university lecturers can fill in at the rest.
The start of overseas voting after nearly three weeks of mass opposition protests showed the determination of Morsi to go forward with the process despite outrage from the liberal opposition, which contends it places restrictions on liberties and gives Islamists a big say on how the country is run.