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Egyptian opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei leaves a press conference in Cairo on Nov. 22. In a televised message on Thursday, he warned that the divisive referendum on a draft constitution raises "the specter of civil war."
Egypt's most prominent democracy advocate has pleaded to President Mohammed Morsi to delay an upcoming vote on a draft constitution to avoid the "specter of civil war."
In an emotional televised message on Thursday, Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei told the Islamist leader: "Fear God, Dr. Morsi and postpone the referendum."
His message comes two days before the Dec. 15 vote on the highly contentious constitution. Morsi and his Islamists allies support the charter while a wide spectrum of liberals, youth groups and others see both the process and the draft as flawed.
A day earlier, Egypt's liberal and secular opposition said it would call off a boycott and instead back a "no" vote in the referendum as long as safeguards are in place for a fair vote.
The absence of a boycott could help ease confrontation on the streets.
But the danger that the vote will not be regarded as legitimate remained. On Thursday, the Carter Center announced that it would not deploy witnesses to observe the process. In a release, the center said it was unable to assess the referendum process as needed because of the late release of regulations for accrediting witnesses.
"The Carter Center hopes to witness the upcoming Peoples’ Assembly elections if the circumstances are conducive to meaningful observation and urges the Egyptian electoral authorities to take steps to ensure early accreditation of domestic and international election witnessing organizations," the release said.
Egyptian rights groups have warned of possible election fraud, and expressed concern that a state-run human rights council has taken charge of issuing monitoring permits, in the past obtained directly from the elections committee.
"The undersigned organizations are deeply concerned about the potential of rigging during or after the referendum," said the statement from a coalition of rights groups.
Meanwhile, the army called off "unity" talks involving rival factions, dealing a blow to efforts to resolve a worsening political crisis over the referendum and rein in street protests that have turned violent.
The latest convulsion in Egypt's transition to democracy was brought on by a decree last month from Morsi in which he awarded himself sweeping powers to push through the new constitution, a necessary prelude to parliamentary elections early next year.
The move generated a huge controversy, dividing the Arab world's most populous state and bringing thousands of pro- and anti-government protesters onto the streets in the worst upheaval since the fall of Hosni Mubarak almost two years ago.
The unrest has so far claimed seven lives in clashes between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition. The army has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the presidential palace, now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades.
Even as opposition hoped for a delay in the vote on Morsi's new basic law, some Egyptians abroad began voting on it at embassies.
The main opposition coalition says the draft constitution does not reflect the aspirations of all of Egypt's 83 million people because of provisions which could give Muslim clerics a role in shaping laws. It wants a new charter with more safeguards for minority rights, including for the 10 percent of Egyptians who are Christian.
Morsi's supporters say the constitution is needed to continue the transition to democracy. Some deride their opponents as Mubarak-era "remnants" trying to cling to power.
"We will vote 'no'," opposition politician and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa told Reuters.
The opposition said that unless the referendum is held with full supervision by the judiciary, security guarantees and local and international monitoring, it would still call for a boycott. It also wants the vote held on one day rather than two.
Islamists have won parliamentary and presidential elections since the fall of Mubarak. They want the vote on the new constitution to go ahead and are confident it will pass, paving the way for them to win a new parliamentary election next year.
The opposition had argued that the chaotic protests and counter-protests of the last two weeks meant the referendum should be postponed. But large opposition rallies this week did not change Morsi's mind.
Reuters, The Associated Press and NBC News' Kari Huus contributed to this report.
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