CAIRO (AP) — President Mohammed Morsi is unlikely to worry if Egypt's Islamist-leaning draft constitution passes by only a small margin in a Dec. 15 referendum, since he and his backers tout his 51 percent election victory in June as a "popular mandate" that is beyond any challenge.
Still, an idea taking root among many secular Egyptians is that a constitution requires a reasonable degree of consensus to qualify as a charter for all — and that it is fundamentally illegitimate to ram one through by a simple majority despite opposition from key sectors of society that oppose giving religion such a major role in the affairs of state.
"It is irrational to have a constitution that does not genuinely represent everyone," said Kahlil al-Anani, a British-based expert on Egypt. "It is important that a constitution is passed with a comfortable majority, but it does not make the document less credible if it is a modest majority."
The proposed constitution is at the heart of the nation's worst political crisis since the overthrow nearly two years ago of authoritarian President Hosni Mubarak. The charter has divided Egypt, with Morsi and his Islamist backers, including ultraconservative Salafis, in one camp, and secularists and leftists, including minority Christians and women, in the other.
At least six civilians have been killed in street clashes and several offices of the president's Muslim Brotherhood torched in the unrest.
With such deep polarization, Morsi on Saturday offered the opposition a mixed bag: He rescinded decrees he issued Nov. 22 that gave him near absolute powers, but he insisted the referendum go ahead as scheduled.
The opposition's response was to call for more street protests to try to force him to abandon the draft constitution.
There may only be a small chance of Morsi doing that.
Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and other like-minded groups are already campaigning for a "yes" vote, marketing the referendum and the adoption of a constitution as the door to stability and economic recovery. If adopted, elections for parliament's lawmaking lower chamber — dissolved by a court ruling in June — must be held within two months.
The opposition's apparent despair over whether it can stop the referendum from going ahead is deepening the schism between Islamists and non-Islamists. Many Egyptians worry it will produce a constitution that is far from representative of the country's 85 million people.
Critics say Egypt is approaching the referendum with a heavy heart rather than the jubilation that supposedly accompanies an occasion that, at least in theory, should be a milestone in the shift from authoritarian rule to democracy.
"This is a constitution that will not contribute to stability," said prominent rights lawyer Negad Boari. "The president wants the referendum, regardless of the cost. They are creating a religious state that they had long dreamt of and waited for. It is now within reach."
The question of whether to rally a "no" vote" or boycott the referendum is a challenging one for the opposition as it comes under scathing criticism as isolated and motivated by its refusal to accept the position of power gained by the Islamists following a string of electoral wins since Mubarak's ouster in February 2011.
Islamists accuse the opposition of being — knowingly or not — part of a conspiracy by Mubarak loyalists to destabilize Egypt and derail its transition to democratic rule.
An opposition spokesman told a news conference Sunday that it is "completely rejecting" the referendum and would not accord legitimacy to a charter that will further divide the nation. But there was no word whether the opposition was calling for a boycott or urging supporters to cast a "no" vote.
The ambivalence may be a reflection of divisions in the ranks of the opposition. None of its main leaders addressed the news conference.
Urging a "no" vote would give the referendum legitimacy, especially if the draft is passed, as expected. Only a simple majority is needed for adoption.