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AP Interview: Egypt liberal objects to charter

Tuesday - 12/25/2012, 11:06am  ET

Egyptian opposition leader Hamdeen Sabahi talks during an interview with the Associated Press at his office in Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 24, 2012. Sabahi said there will be continued resistance to the constitution even though it passed, contending that the majority of Egyptians are not Islamists. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) -- 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."

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