But a fundamental disagreement emerged within the NSF: The Free Egyptians and prominent liberal Mohamed ElBaradei's Constitution Party argued for a boycott, while the leftist Social Democrats and others wanted to try to rally the "no" vote. The front ended up adopting a middle path, calling for "escalating" protests in the hope that labor unions would join in with major strikes. While protests gripped Tahrir Square and the streets outside the presidential palace, the strikes never materialized and Morsy decided to wait out the unrest.
On Dec. 7, as Tahrir Square began to fill with a demonstration, Constitution Party member and NSF spokesman Khaled Dawoud sat in a café, juggling calls from aides to ElBaradei and other party leaders. A former U.S.-based correspondent for the state-owned Ahram newspaper and later Al Jazeera Arabic, Dawoud said the constitution had been drafted improperly and did not guarantee "the freedoms that we fought for in Tahrir one year ago."
"We have no option but to continue with demonstrations and escalation and hope they will see the light," he said.
Dawoud grimaced at the prospect of discussing the political maneuvering required to beat the referendum, or what its result might indicate for the future of the opposition coalition.
"I'll give you an answer when we get there," he said.
But across the Nile, on the second floor of a shabby downtown high-rise, the Social Democrats were already there. Three days earlier, Mohamed Arafat, the party's chief field organizer, had listed off the governorates in the Delta region where his officers had already been campaigning for a "no" vote.
Arafat believed, like Dawoud, that Morsy had lost his slim majority through strong-arm tactics and poor governance. But unlike Dawoud, he thought it was possible to turn these into an opposition electoral victory.
"A lot of people are talking about boycotting.... If ElBaradei says boycott, it will make a big problem for us, but I believe this time we must say no," he said.
Even if the constitution passed, Arafat argued, participating would give the opposition an opportunity to rally supporters. He was already looking ahead to parliamentary elections, which would follow two months after a "yes" vote on the constitution.
"If 40 percent or more say ‘no,' those voters can vote for us in the next election," he said.
But the disagreements within the NSF made it difficult to either rally these voters or organize a boycott. The day after Morsy called the referendum, the Salvation Front put together a team of high-powered marketers, fundraisers, and producers to prepare a "no" campaign. They produced advertisements critiquing the constitution's articles, filmed chatty man-on-the-street interviews, and built a website called LaLelDostour.com ("No to the Constitution") and a Facebook group called the Popular Move to Reject the Constitution.
For more than a week, however, the NSF kept the campaign in its pocket. On Dec. 11, without discussion, the advertisements suddenly appeared on television bearing a Social Democrats tagline, according to one of the team members. The party had pushed out the material by itself.