Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has rescinded the decree giving himself sweeping powers, but this has not appeased the opposition since he has not cancelled the referendum on a new constitution, which is due to take place at the end of this week.
His opponents have demanded Morsi scrap the vote on Dec. 15 on a constitution that was fast-tracked through an assembly led by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Liberals and others had walked out, saying their voices were not being heard.
Islamists have insisted the referendum should go ahead on time, saying it is needed to complete a democratic transition still incomplete after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow 22 months ago.
The military, which had run the nation during a turbulent interim period after Mubarak fell, stepped into the crisis on Saturday to tell feuding factions that dialogue was essential to avoid “catastrophe.” But a military source said that was not a prelude to the army retaking control of Egypt or the streets.
After Saturday’s talks, the president issued a new decree in which the first article “cancels the constitutional declaration” announced on Nov. 22, the spokesman for the dialogue, Mohamed Selim al-Awa, told a news conference held around midnight.
But he said the constitutional referendum would go ahead next Saturday, adding that although those at the meeting had discussed a postponement, there were legal obstacles to taking such a step.
The political turmoil has exposed deep rifts in the nation of 83 million between Islamists, who were suppressed for decades, and their rivals, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out other voices and restrict social freedoms. Many Egyptian just crave stability and economic recovery.
Morsi’s imposition of martial law has given the army arrest powers which is only certain to inflame the situation even more:
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has ordered Egypt’s army from Monday to take on police powers – including the right to arrest civilians – in the run-up to a vote on a constitution that has triggered bloodshed.
The decree takes effect on the eve of mass rival protests on the referendum that is to be staged on Saturday, and follows street clashes that have left seven people dead and hundreds injured.
The military, which ruled Egypt between former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011 to Morsi’s election in June 2012, has sought to remain neutral in the political crisis.
But it has warned it “will not allow” the situation to deteriorate, and urged both sides to dialogue.
Army tanks and troops have since Thursday deployed around Morsi’s presidential palace. But they have not confronted thousands of protesters who have gathered there every night.
The opposition, made up of secular, liberal, leftwing and Christian groups, has said it will escalate its protests to scupper the referendum.
It views the new constitution, largely drawn up by Morsi’s Islamist allies, as undermining human rights, the rights of women, religious minorities, and curtailing the independence of the judiciary.
Morsi has defiantly pushed on with the draft charter, seeing it as necessary to secure democratic reform in the wake of Mubarak’s 30-year autocratic rule.
In recent days, the protesters have hardened their slogans, going beyond criticism of the decree and the referendum to demand Morsi’s ouster.
The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, shot back that Islamist movements would counter with their own big rallies in the capital in support of the referendum.
Late Sunday, the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, called for huge protests in Cairo to reject the December 15 constitutional referendum.
But analysts said still-strong public support for Morsi and the Brotherhood’s proven ability to mobilize at grassroots level would likely help the draft constitution be adopted.
“The Muslim Brotherhood believes that it has majority support so it can win the constitutional referendum,” said Eric Trager, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If that happens, he warned, it would “set up the country for prolonged instability”.
To be continued – and to be watched with concern by Egypt’s neighbours, especially Israel.