Egypt’s opposition calls new mass protests


Egypt opposition calls mass protests rejecting referendum

Cairo: Egypt’s opposition has called for fresh mass protests on Tuesday rejecting a December 15 referendum on a draft constitution they said was being rammed through by President Mohamed Morsi and his Islamist allies.

The announcement on Sunday deepened Egypt’s weeks-long political crisis and carried the risk of further bloody clashes should Morsi supporters turn out to challenge the demonstrations.

On Wednesday, vicious clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters hurling petrol bombs and wielding bars and batons in front of the presidential palace left seven people dead and hundreds injured.

Egypt’s powerful army, which is trying to remain neutral, warned on Saturday it “will not allow” a worsening of the crisis and said both sides must hold dialogue.

Morsi has made a key concession to the opposition on the weekend by rescinding a decree giving himself wide-ranging powers free from judicial challenge.

Egyptian army soldiers stand on top of a tank as opposition supporters and protesters wave national flags © AFP

But his determination to see through the disputed referendum infuriated the opposition National Salvation Front, which has said no talks are possible if it goes ahead.

“The Front calls for demonstrations in the capital and in the regions on Tuesday as a rejection of the president’s decision that goes against our legitimate demands,” it said in a statement read late Sunday at a news conference by its spokesman, Sameh Ashour.

“We do not recognise the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people,” the statement said, adding that the referendum “will certainly lead to more division and sedition.”

Going ahead with the referendum “in this explosive situation with the threat of the Brothers’ militias amounts to the regime abandoning its responsibilities,” it said.

The opposition sees the constitution, which was largely written up by Islamists, as a tool weakening human rights, and the rights of women, religious minorities, and the judiciary’s independence.

It dismissed arguments by Morsi aides that the referendum could not legally be delayed under constitutional rules requiring a plebiscite two weeks after it is formally presented to the president.

“The two-week deadline is just a date for organising the referendum, and you can postpone it without any problems,” a Front leader, Munir Fakhri, told AFP.

Morsi’s camp, though, argues that it is up to the people to accept or reject the draft constitution.

If it is rejected in the referendum, Morsi has promised to have a new one drawn up by officials chosen by the public, rather than the Islamist-dominated parliament as was the case for the current text.

Prime Minister Hisham Qandil earlier urged protesters from both sides to stop demonstrating, and to vote in Saturday’s referendum, the official news agency MENA said.

Opposition supporters and protesters walk past police in front of the Egyptian presidential palace © AFP

Analysts said still-strong support for Morsi and the proven ability of his Muslim Brotherhood to mobilise Egypt’s voters at the 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.”

Late Sunday, several hundred protesters gathered in front of Morsi’s palace and in Tahrir Square — the focus of the 2011 revolution that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak.

In recent days, the protesters have hardened their slogans, going beyond criticism of the decree and the referendum to demand Morsi’s ouster.

The opposition Front, however, said it still considers Morsi Egypt’s president, even if it strongly believed he was trampling on democratic principles.

On Saturday, the bloc suggested that the mood in the country was also turning towards a general strike.

Amid the protests and tensions, the army was watching nervously. Tanks and troops have been deployed outside the presidential palace but they have made no move to confront the demonstrators.

On Sunday, air force F-16 warplanes flew low over the city centre. The official MENA news agency described the unusually low flyover as an exercise against “hostile air attacks and to secure important state installations.”