The Carter Centre, former US president Jimmy Carter's human rights NGO, said on Thursday it would not deploy monitors for Egypt's constitutional referendum, amid deepening polarisation over the process of adopting a document guiding how the country is to be governed following its 2011 revolution.
The centre was the main international group monitoring earlier Egyptian votes, and its absence increases the likelihood that, if the constitution backed by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies passes, the rushed process leading to the Saturday referendum will further undermine the document's legitimacy.
It also comes as opposition and rights groups warn that the breakneck pace at which the vote and changes to the procedure for accrediting election monitors are being organised may lead to fraud in the vote.
Egypt was plunged into political crisis three weeks ago when Morsi issued a decree giving himself near absolute power. The president rescinded the decree in the face of broad criticism and huge street protests, but not before a panel charged with drawing up the country's constitution pushed through a draft in a marathon overnight session. The president ordered a referendum two weeks later.
Morsi's supporters say the constitution will help end the political instability that has gripped Egypt since the March 2011 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. His opponents say the process has been rushed, minority concerns have been ignored, and the constitution is full of obscurely worded clauses that could allow Islamists to restrict civil liberties.
Compounding the sense of crisis are huge rival protests that draw tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands. Last week pro-Morsi supporters attacked an opposition sit-in outside the presidential palace, leading to street clashes in which at least 10 people were killed and hundreds wounded – the worst political violence since Morsi was elected president.
Amid the rising tensions, the Carter Centre said it would not be able to conduct "a comprehensive assessment of all aspects of the referendum process". It cited in a statement the government's late release of regulations for election monitoring.
Also on Thursday, 20 Egyptian rights groups issued a joint statement warning of possible election fraud, and expressing concern 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.
"The undersigned organisations are deeply concerned about the potential of rigging during or after the referendum," said the statement. "The undersigned organisations warn that the climate in which the referendum is being conducted does not bode well for a fair voting process."
The opposition was torn between whether to boycott the process or campaign for a no vote, but on Wednesday the umbrella National Salvation Front called on Egyptians to cast ballots against the document. It has still left open the possibility of a boycott if judges and monitors were absent and if the state does not provide protection to polling stations.
Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who leads the Front, tweeted on Wednesday that "insistence on a referendum in an explosive, polarised, chaotic and lawless environment is leading country to the brink". The Front has turned down several offers by Morsi to hold talks, saying he has not kept promises he made during election campaign, and that he must first delay the vote.
The polarisation has hit government bodies and other state institutions, in particular the judiciary.
On Thursday, the Judges' Club – a body that acts as a union for judges – held an emergency meeting denouncing the prosecutor general, Talaat Abdullah, for firing an investigative judge who released more than 130 anti-Morsi protesters detained at the palace clashes. The judge has since been reinstated.
Abdullah is a focus of judicial anger, as he was appointed and his predecessor removed as part of Morsi's special decree, even though the president normally does not have the power to fire prosecutors.
The decree prompted many judges to go on strike, and most will refrain from overseeing the constitution referendum, according to the Judges' Club. Egyptian election law requires judicial oversight of the voting process.
Morsi has responded to the shortage of judges by breaking the vote into two rounds – one on Saturday and another on December 22. The country's Election Committee says there are 7,000 judges ready to oversee the first round of voting, which will include the provinces of Cairo and Alexandria, the country's two largest.
The National Salvation Front criticised the decision to split the vote into two rounds, saying first-day results would influence voters and increase the chance of violence by raising tensions.
The fracas over the constitution has fed wider fears among many Egyptians that the Muslim Brotherhood aspires to monopolise power. Opponents of Morsi fear thta last week's violence outside the presidential palace was a signal that the Brotherhood would use force to push its agenda.
But the Brotherhood denies using violence and says it is usually on the receiving end, claiming that the majority of casualties during the palace fighting were on its side. Over the past three weeks, offices of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party have been set alight by protesters in several cities.
On Thursday, clashes erupted inside Cairo's Ain Shams university after anti-Morsi students smashed windows and broke into a conference where a speaker invited by the Muslim Brotherhood was discussing the draft constitution.
University security guards smuggled the speaker, Islamist politician Mohammed Salim al-Awaa, out unharmed, according to a security official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Brotherhood accuses former Mubarak supporters of paying thugs in an organised campaign to topple Islamists from power.
In his weekly message to reporters, the group's leader Mohammed Badei accused the opposition of practising "the dictatorship of the minority".
But he also said the "honest opposition" was infiltrated by Mubarak supporters. They are "cheating them with sweet words, and using excessive expenditure of unlawful money to separate them from their real partners", he said. "There are hidden hands working at night trying to topple what is being built of elected institutions."
Mubarak-era officials had also blamed "hidden hands" for stirring unrest.