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Egypt is rapidly approaching its own 'cliff'

Petr David Josek / AP

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, on Sunday.

News analysis

CAIRO — With less than a week to go until a historic referendum is held on a draft constitution that has polarized Egypt, a looming constitutional cliff threatens to plunge the country into further political uncertainty, economic turmoil and violent instability.

First, a recap of the events of the past few weeks: On Nov. 22, President Mohammed Morsi issued a decree that gave him temporary but absolute powers. That decree also shielded the largely Islamist 100-member assembly writing the constitution from the threat of being dissolved by a judicial court order.

The assembly then drafted a constitution that has been widely criticized and divided the country into two main ideological camps.

One one side is Morsi, backed by the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, and the ultra-conservative Salafists and their supporters. They have supported the president in rallies and essentially laid siege to independent private news channels they accuse of bias against the president and his political agenda.

NBC's Ayman Mohyeldin reports live from Cairo.

On the other side is a group of liberal, secular, socialist, youth and a few moderate opposition parties that have coalesced around what they call the National Salvation Front, led by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, former Foreign Minister Amr Moussa and several other smaller but notable Egyptian figures and movements. They too have protested, rigorously laying siege to the presidential palace. 

They claim that the draft constitution, a wide-ranging document that includes articles on trade, education and politics, was drafted by a insular group not reflective of a broad consensus of Egypt's diverse political viewpoints. They argue that it will pave the way for an Islamist takeover of the state that tramples on the rights of individuals, minorities and women.

Egypt opposition rejects Morsi plan for constitutional referendum, calls for more protests

Both camps claim to represent the interests of the revolution. But the unity of that revolution has now given way to fractured politics, which observers say threatens to derail Egypt's transition from authoritarian rule to democracy.

Fair vote possible?
Now that Morsi's controversial decree has been rescinded, the matter boils down to whether the referendum will be held on time and whether the constitution will be approved. The president and his supporters have insisted the referendum go ahead as scheduled on Dec. 15. They are rallying behind the mantra that this constitution strikes the right balance between preserving and advancing Egypt's Islamic identity while protecting the rights of others.

Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

Pro-Morsi supporters hold banners reading "I support the President's decisions," during a march in Cairo on Sunday.

The opposition is rejecting the referendum and the process that led to the vote. They are not calling for a boycott but insist the vote should not be held, and that a new, more inclusive constitutional assembly convened in the near future. They have not explained what they plan on doing on the day of the vote, should it still be held on time. 

Politics aside, there are serious questions as to whether or not the state can successfully carry out a free and fair referendum, purely from a logistical point of view. Who will supervise the vote and the counting? Egypt's electoral commission does not yet enjoy the credibility of public confidence after years of mismanaged and engineered elections.

Secondly, Egyptian judges, various judicial unions and clubs are divided over whether or not they should boycott supervising the referendum process. To make matters even more questionable, close to 200 diplomats responsible for supervising expatriate voting at Egyptian embassies around the world say they will not supervise it, threatening to discredit a chunk of the voting.

Military granted temporary powers
Against this backdrop, the country is as divided and as explosive as it has ever been since last year's revolution.

Sex mobs target Egypt's women

A lack of security is a chronic problem. The police force is widely discredited as corrupt and inept, and few -- besides its own leaders -- believe it can competently safeguard the integrity of the vote and more importantly the safety and security of voters.

To ensure the vote runs smoothly, the president has turned to the country's military to safeguard the process, and has given it power to temporarily arrest and detain citizens. Already, some have criticized that move as a step back for the country trying to break free from the shackles of military rule and voter intimidation.

Egypt army gets temporary power to arrest civilians ahead of referendum

If the political uncertainty and street violence weren't enough, Egypt's stock market reacted negatively to the recent developments. An attempt by the president's government to increase state revenue by imposing one of the largest tax hikes the country has ever seen backfired on Monday with the stock market plunging in reaction to the news. A few hours later, the president said the tax hike would be frozen and not go into effect yet.  Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund's board of directors was set to meet in Washington, D.C., to decide whether a $4-billion loan should be extended to Egypt.

Still the president and his supporters, along with several of the state's institutions and judicial bodies, say all of these challenges must -- and indeed will -- be overcome to bring Egypt to a historic vote in less than a week's time. Egypt is rapidly approaching its constitutional cliff as the world watches.

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