Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has canceled a decree that gave him sweeping powers and sparked violent unrest, but did not delay this month’s referendum on a new constitution, which was a major demand of his opponents.
Islamist supporters of Morsi have insisted the referendum should go ahead on time on Saturday, saying it is needed to complete a democratic transition still incomplete after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow 22 months ago.
Ahmed Said, a leading member of the main opposition National Salvation Front, said the decision to press ahead with the referendum was “shocking” and would deepen a political crisis.
“It is making things a lot worse,” said Said, head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party. “I cannot imagine that after all this they want to pass a constitution that does not represent all Egyptians.”
The announcement that Morsi had scrapped his Nov. 22 decree followed talks on Saturday that ran into the night at his presidential palace. Billed as a “national dialogue,” the meeting was boycotted by his main rivals and had little credibility among protesters in the most populous Arab nation.
The April 6 movement, which helped galvanize street protests against Mubarak, said in a statement about the outcome of Saturday’s talks: “What happened is manipulation and a continuation of deception in the name of law and legitimacy.”
The constitution was fast-tracked through an assembly led by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Liberals and others walked out, saying their voices were not being heard.
“A constitution without consensus cannot go to a referendum,” said Hermes Fawzi, 28, a protester camped with dozens of others outside the presidential palace. “It’s not logical that just one part of society makes the constitution.”
Nearby were tanks and military vehicles of the Republican Guards positioned to protect the palace after clashes in the past week between Islamists and their rivals killed seven people and injured about 350.
The military, which led Egypt through a turbulent interim period after Mubarak fell, stepped into the crisis on Saturday to tell feuding factions that dialogue was essential to avoid “catastrophe.”
However, a military source said this was not a prelude to the army retaking control of Egypt or the streets.
After Saturday’s talks, Morsi 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 about midnight.
However, he said the constitutional referendum would go ahead anyway on Saturday, adding that although those at the meeting discussed a postponement, there were legal obstacles to a delay.
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.
Islamists and more liberal-minded opponents have each drawn tens of thousands of supporters to the streets in rival rallies since the Nov. 22 decree. Morsi’s opponents have chanted for his downfall, while Islamists have said there is a conspiracy to bring down the nation’s first freely elected president.
The National Salvation Front, whose members include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and former Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa, stayed away from Saturday’s talks.
Ahead of stating its formal position, Front spokesman Hussein Abdel Ghani said: “My first personal impression is that it is a limited and insufficient step. We repeatedly said that among our top demands is for the referendum to be delayed.”
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