RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Egypt's protest movement against the controversial draft constitution appears to be losing steam. The opposition had hoped to fill the streets last night with protestors, but calls to demonstrate only generated a lackluster turnout. Voting on the new constitution begins today for Egyptians living abroad. Voters in Egypt are expected to begin casting ballots on Saturday as President Mohammed Morsi plans. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report from Cairo.
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Opposition leaders are asking Egyptians to cast a no vote on the draft constitution. Even so, it is widely expected to pass, given the Muslim Brotherhood's strong political base. That base was out in force last night across Egypt, including in front of this mosque in Cairo's Nasr City.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
NELSON: Thousands of pro-Morsi supporters chanted: bread, freedom, Islamic justice. One of them was college senior Bedeir Hamza Bedeir.
BEDEIR HAMZA BEDEIR: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: He predicts three out of every four Egyptians will vote for the draft constitution. But whether that vote will be a free and fair one is in doubt. Most of Egypt's judges who are tasked with supervising elections as independent monitors rejected taking a role in the upcoming referendum.
AHMED EL-ZEND: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: At a televised news conference, Ahmed el-Zend, who heads the country's main judges association, explained that jurists don't want to help with a new constitution that fails to take all Egyptians into account. He and other critics of the draft charge that it threatens the rights of women and religious minorities and whittles away at Egypt's secular legal system.
They also complain that voters have had little time to digest the 234 articles in the document they are being asked to vote on. The debate has led to Egypt's worst political crisis in two years. The tensions have also crippled the Egyptian economy.
PRIME MINISTER HESHAM KANDIL: (Foreign language spoken)
NELSON: Prime Minister Hesham Kandil announced in a televised news conference that his government was forced to delay until next year a desperately needed $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. There were signs last night that even Morsi's opponents are beginning to tire of the chaos.
(SOUNDBITE OF DEMONSTRATION)
NELSON: The number of people who turned up outside the presidential palace to protest against Morsi and the upcoming referendum was much smaller than in the past. Soldiers allowed the peaceful crowd to surge past the cement wall they had erected and approach the palace gates.
But that access and the chants organizers blasted from loudspeakers mounted on cars did little to lift people's spirits. Protestor Mina Samy blamed the lackluster attendance on fatigue.
MINA SAMY: People get tired. You can't go to protests every day, or walk in long marches. That's normal. But I wish that anybody who can come here, just do what you have to do. Just say no and we'll see what's going on next.
NELSON: The Egyptian defense minister called on Morsi's allies and opponents as well as Christian and Muslim clerics to meet and ease national tensions before the referendum. The vote is to begin today at 160 of Egypt's embassies and consulates for Egyptians who live abroad.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.