Egypt's Morsi backs off decree, but fails to assuage protesters

President Mohamed Morsi held firm in rejecting what had been a key demand of the opposition: delaying a referendum scheduled for Saturday on a new constitution.

Maya Alleruzzo/AP
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is seen during a photo opportunity in his office at the presidential palace in Cairo Saturday. Egypt's military said Saturday that serious dialogue is the 'best and only' way to overcome the nation's deepening conflict over a disputed draft constitution hurriedly adopted by Islamist allies of Mr. Morsi, and recent decrees granting himself near-absolute powers.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi last night rescinded his recent decision removing checks on his power and making the constitution-writing process immune from judicial review, a move that brought thousands of people into the street against him across Egypt

But he held firm in rejecting what had been a key demand of the opposition: delaying a referendum scheduled for Saturday on a new constitution that was hurriedly completed less than two weeks ago by a committee that most secular and Christian members had resigned from in protest. 

Though the main coalition of opposition groups that united against Mr. Morsi's recent actions has yet to announce its response to the decree, which came late last night, some members of the opposition and protesters say the move does not satisfy them. 

"Morsi used the powers of the decree to push his constitution on us, so what does it mean if he cancels it now? It means nothing. He achieved his goal already," says Haitham Mohamed, who has spent much of the last week protesting the president's moves. He noted that if the referendum approves the constitution, Morsi's previous decree, and the powers that came with it, would have been invalidated soon anyway. "We demanded that he delay the referendum, and for a constitution we agree on. He ignored this demand."

The president issued the new constitutional decree after an all-day discussion among various political figures he called a national dialogue, though it was boycotted by the main opposition coalition. The referendum will go on as planned, according to the text of the new constitutional decree. The document also stipulates that if the majority votes against the new constitution, a new constituent assembly will be created through direct elections.

Opposition members had previously criticized the referendum because a "no" vote would leave Morsi with sweeping powers. The new document canceled Morsi's previous decree making his own actions immune from judicial review, granting himself wide powers to "protect the revolution," and protecting the constituent assembly from dissolution by the judiciary. But it does say that constitutional decrees such as this one are immune to judicial challenges.

Fresh protests planned

Protesters prepared to march to the presidential palace today to voice their rejection of the president's new move. The streets around the palace turned into a battle zone this week when the president's supporters attacked the protesters who had gathered there. Seven people were killed in the street clashes. 

Morsi's determination to put the constitution to a vote shows his confidence that the majority of Egyptians will accept it, despite the large and widespread protests over recent weeks, including attacks on Muslim Brotherhood offices. The Brotherhood, of which the president was a leader before he ran for president, has an extensive grass-roots network that makes it extremely effective at election mobilization. Analysts say he's also counting on the fact that many Egyptians are weary of protests after nearly two years of instability.

Though opposition groups have united in the face of Morsi's recent actions, virtually none have started on-the-ground campaigning for a vote against the constitution, preferring instead to spend their efforts protesting and demanding a delay in the referendum. That leaves them with less than a week to mobilize voters against the constitution, if they decide to do so. 

The new path laid out in the president's decree in case the referendum fails would also seem to put the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party in a good position for good representation in a new constitution assembly, with its superior organization. "It's part of the arm-twisting that they did," says Bassem Sabry, a writer who often focuses on Egypt's opposition. "The Islamists have a ground network that has been decades in the making." 

Yet if the constitution is defeated in a referendum, he says, it means the opposition has succeeded in reaching out to voters, which means they could likely gain better representation in the new assembly than they did in the last parliament, where they took about a quarter of the seats. 

Mr. Sabry says the new constitutional decree was not a compromise because it did not delay the constitutional referendum. After a contentious process that saw most non-Islamist members of the committee walk out, the committee announced abruptly less than two weeks ago that it would finish the document and put it to a vote.

Sabry says Egyptians need at least a month to mull the document, which rights activists and many opposition members call deeply flawed. Sabry also objects to the president's repeated use of constitutional declarations, the term used here for unilateral amendments, made by the executive, to the temporary constitution.

The military junta that ruled Egypt in the post-uprising transition period first put a temporary constitution to a referendum, then began unilaterally issuing amendments to it that were not subject to a vote. Morsi has continued the practice. "He attempted to fix this entire problem by issuing yet another constitutional declaration while one of the main sticking points of the opposition was he does not have the legal right to do this," says Sabry.

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