CAIRO – Two days before a constitutional referendum it considered boycotting, Egypt's secular opposition finally launched its "no" campaign Thursday with newspaper and TV ads detailing the argument against the charter drafted by Islamist supporters of President Mohammed Morsi.
The Morsi camp has a simpler message: A "Yes" to the constitution is a yes to Islam.
The deadly violence and harsh divisions of recent weeks – combined with the inability of most Egyptians to even comprehend the densely written 63-page document – have turned the vote into a stark choice on whether the largest Arab nation takes a serious step toward theocratic rule.
"This constitution is supposed to protect the rights of the minorities, but it is written by the majority for the majority," said Haitham Sherdi, a young opposition supporter from Cairo.
"If it passes, it will be used to crush the minority until they vanish," he added, referring to Egypt's Christian community.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists have been plastering posters across much of the country urging Egyptians to vote "yes to protecting (Islamic) Sharia (laws)."
The opposition's campaign on TV, in newspapers and in flyers is focused on the slogan "A constitution to divide Egypt." Activists also took to the streets with loudspeakers atop pickup trucks touring Cairo and other cities.
The opposition campaign began a day after the National Salvation Front – an umbrella group of opposition parties – announced it was calling on supporters to vote "no" rather than boycott the referendum. The delay reflected divisions within the alliance.
Reform leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who was among those initially favoring a boycott, made an emotional appeal to Morsi on Thursday to postpone the vote, warning of "the specter of civil war." He called on his supporters to vote "no" if the referendum goes ahead as scheduled.
Jehad el-Haddad, a spokesman for the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party, said it will accept the referendum result regardless of the outcome, but added: "We want to have a constitution in place because it's a pillar of a functioning state. The fact that it is lacking encourages a lot of people to resort to undemocratic means."
In many ways, the pros and cons of the draft constitution have been overshadowed by the worst crisis to hit Egypt since the overthrow nearly two years ago of Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian regime.
With killings and mass street protests defining the past three weeks, newspaper and TV commentators have warned of a country moving toward civil strife and a schism that may not be bridged.
There are also fears that Egypt's already ailing economy could hit new lows after the Morsi government delayed a $4.8 billion standby loan from the International Monetary Fund. While the money is nowhere near enough to tackle the country's woes, the agreement with the IMF on restructuring and reforming the economy was desperately needed to convince other donors and investors to return to Egypt.
A comfortable win would significantly strengthen the Islamists' hand and embolden them to push ahead with their agenda of turning Egypt into an Islamic state, something that may prolong the standoff and raise the specter of more and widespread violence.
Already, there are signs of what may lie ahead.
Morsi supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood and opposition protesters fought street battles for hours outside the presidential palace in Cairo last week. The fighting left at least 10 dead and wounded about 700. Rights activists say Brotherhood supporters operated detention and torture centers just outside the palace walls, where dozens of opposition protesters were taken before eventually being released into police custody.
Worse still, the rights groups say, Morsi publicly compromised the due process rights of dozens of protesters detained by police when he said in a nationally televised address that they had confessed to being "paid thugs."
On Thursday, 20 Egyptian rights groups issued a joint statement warning of possible election fraud and expressing concerns that a state-run human rights council has taken charge of issuing monitoring permits, which in the past were obtained directly from the elections committee.
The council is headed by Judge Hossam el-Ghariyani, also the head of the controversial constitutional drafting panel.
Meanwhile, the Carter Center, the main international group monitoring earlier Egyptian votes, said it would not deploy monitors for the referendum because of the government's late release of monitoring regulations. The absence of the center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, increases the likelihood that the rushed process could undermine the constitution's legitimacy if it passes.
Egypt's crisis began on Nov. 22 when Morsi issued decrees, since rescinded, that placed him above judicial oversight.
But the confrontation now centers on the draft charter. Morsi's opponents contend the document gives religious authorities too much influence over legislation, threatens to restrict freedom of expression and opens the door to Islamist control over day-to-day life.
Islamists, on the other hand, have embraced the draft as a victory for Islam.
"I am not in favor of parts of the constitution, but I am happy with the greater role it gave to Sharia," said Moataz Abdel-Hafeez, a pharmacist who follows the ultraconservative Salafi doctrine of Islam. "I am hopeful that an Islamic parliament will be elected and change all laws that contradict or don't conform with Sharia."
The fallout has divided Egypt, with Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and their Salafi allies on one side, and the rest of the country, including liberals, leftists and Christians, on the other.
The Supreme Constitutional Court had been expected to rule earlier this month to dissolve the panel that drafted the constitution. But the Brotherhood has prevented the judges from entering the building for three weeks.
As a result, the panel — packed with Morsi supporters — rushed through the document in an all-night session on Nov. 29-30, voting overwhelmingly in favor of each of its 236 clauses.
"A constitution that is adopted overnight is definitely a flawed one," said Ahmed el-Fiqqi, a 30-year-old musician. "I will vote 'no' but if it is passed and implemented in the spirit it was written I will seriously consider leaving the country."