Egypt's contentious new constitution has been approved by some 64 per cent of voters in a two-day referendum, a major victory for President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers that has left the opposition scrambling for a way to put the brakes on a complete political takeover by the Islamist movement.
"The referendum is not the end game," the National Salvation Front, the main opposition group, said in a statement. "It is only a battle in this long struggle for the future of Egypt … We will not allow a change to the identity of Egypt or the return of the age of tyranny."
Unofficial results showed that about 10.5 million people voted in favour of th-e new charter, while about 6 million opposed it. Formal tallies are expected to be released Monday.
Some in the opposition claimed electoral fraud. But Hamdeen Sabahi, a senior opposition figure who finished third in the presidential election earlier this year, said that "legally, we will respect the result of the referendum," while adding that politically "we do not accept such a constitution for Egypt."
Christians and liberal Muslims opposed this constitution largely because it left open the possibility of an increasingly Islamic state coming into force. While the principles of sharia, or Islamic law, remain the main source of legislation, just as they have been since the 1971 constitution came into force under president Anwar Sadat, the new charter does little to ensure the inviolability of the rights of non-Muslims and secularists as many hoped it would.
"We have to decide," said Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister who unsuccessfully ran for president in May. "Should we continue along the same lines of confrontation? We must ask this because we have a country that's on the brink of another major crisis [in the economy]. What about all the needs of the country? What about the need for rebuilding the country? These things have to be considered."
Indeed, many who voted in favour of the charter did so in the hope that it would end the chaos and untenable economic conditions that have beset the country since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
The Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party said in a statement on its Facebook page that it hoped the adoption of the constitution will provide a "historic opportunity to reunite the national forces on the basis of mutual respect and genuine dialogue aimed at the stability of the homeland."
But the bitter political battle over the constitution, and its spillover into violent protests, have undermined Mr. Morsi. His vice-president, Mahmoud Mekki, quit during Saturday's voting. While the post is eliminated under the new constitution and Mr. Mekki had been expected to leave, a string of resignations by other officials has left Mr. Morsi's administration in disarray.
The President has also seen his popularity plummet in the six months he's been in office, and he and his Brotherhood cohorts are in need of allies as they see some of their support siphoned off by the more radical Salafists. They are the Brotherhood's chief rival now.
The low turnout of 32 per cent is the biggest blemish on the Brotherhood's victory, although it also represents an opportunity for the opposition. The 68 per cent of eligible voters who could not be persuaded to go to the polls means there are many unharvested votes that could be in play for parliamentary elections due to take place in two months.
Among those who sat out the constitutional referendum are the big clans and powerful interests that had economic ties to the Mubarak regime, but have not joined the umbrella opposition group. "If the election is fair and transparent, the opposition should see its strength grow considerably," said Hisham Kassem, the founding publisher of the independent El Masry al Youm newspaper. "For one thing, the big families that backed the old regime are back and looking for a place to put their votes."
As well, Mr. Morsi must usher in a number of economic reforms if Egypt is to receive IMF funding it badly needs. The increase in taxes on popular items such as cell phones and cigarettes will make it harder for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party to hold its support in any election.