Egypt's Morsi Softens Power Grab, But Still Vows to Hold Referendum

Saturday, 08 Dec 2012 08:03 PM

By Paul Scicchitano

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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whose power-grabbing decree on Thanksgiving sparked tumultuous protests across the country, cancelled the decree early Sunday morning but he insisted on going ahead with the referendum on a constitution hurriedly adopted by his Islamist allies during an all-night session late last month.

Egypt's liberal opposition called for more protests Sunday, seeking to keep up the momentum of its street campaign after the president made a partial concession overnight but refused its main demand he rescind a draft constitution going to a referendum on Dec. 15.

The opposition said Morsi's rescinding of his decrees was an empty gesture since the decrees had already achieved their main aim of ensuring the adoption of the draft constitution. The edicts had barred the courts from dissolving the Constituent Assembly that passed the charter and further neutered the judiciary by making Morsi immune from its oversight.

But Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood said a referendum on a new constitution would go ahead as planned on Dec. 15, suggesting Morsi wants to take advantage of the recent instability and the disorganization of the opposition.

Dr Walid Phares author of "The Coming Revolution" and an advisor to Congress on the Middle East, tells Newsmax in an exclusive interview that Morsi met with Islamist parties and others on Saturday.

"Most of the opposition boycotted. He wanted to convince them that by modyfing slightly the draft they would accept the referendum on time," according to Phares, a Newsmax contributor.

"Morsi and the Islamists know that the longer it would take the more difficult it will be for them to pass an Islamist constitution," explained Phares. "So in my estimate he will go ahead with it as scheduled on Dec. 15 while chaos is reigning and the opposition is unorganized. He counts on the Obama administration to be silent until the referendum then declare 'the people have spoken.'"

Meanwhile Egypt's military said on Saturday that only dialogue could avert "catastrophe," stepping into a crisis pitting an Islamist president against opponents of his drive to reshape a nation in turmoil since Hosni Mubarak's overthrow.

An army statement, which state radio and television interrupted their programs to read out, told feuding factions that a solution to the upheaval in the most populous Arab nation should not contradict "legitimacy and the rules of democracy."

That sounded like a swipe at protesters who have besieged the palace of the freely elected Morsi and who have called for his removal, going beyond mainstream opposition demands for him to retract the decree that expanded his powers.

egyptian-tank.jpg
An Egyptian protester took this photo of children atop an Egyptian army tank outside the presidential palace on Saturday.
(AP Photo)
The statement also called for a "serious" national dialogue — perhaps one more credible than talks convened by Morsi on Saturday in the absence of opposition leaders. They insisted he must first scrap his Nov. 22 decree, defer next week's popular vote on a new constitution and allow the text to be revised.

Newsmax contributor Dr. Tawfik Hamid questioned Morsi's intent, saying "this is just playing with words, not a real change."

He told Newsmax exclusively on Sunday that Morsi must build consensus within the opposition.

"I think the only way to exit this disaster is that Morsi cancels the declaration completely and put the constitution to referandom only after being accepted by the opposition groups as he promised them before the election," said Hamid, the author of "Inside Jihad: Understanding and Confronting Radical Islam," and a senior fellow and chair for the Study of Islamic Radicalism at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies.

Deep rifts have emerged over the destiny of a country of 83 million where Mubarak's ouster after 30 years of autocratic rule led to a messy army-led transition, with the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies winning two elections. Many Egyptians crave a return to stability and economic recovery.

The spokesman for the main Islamist coalition demanded that the referendum go ahead on time on the constitution drafted by an Islamist-led assembly from which liberals had walked out.

The army, which ran Egypt for months after Mubarak fell in February 2011, again cast itself primarily as the neutral guarantor of the nation and a military source said there was no plan to retake control of the country or its turbulent streets.

"The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus," the statement said. "The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow."

The military, however, did seem poised to take a more active role in security arrangements for the Dec. 15 referendum.

Phares, who served as a foreign policy and national security adviser to former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, added that opposition leaders in Egypt have assured him that they will escalate protests against Morsi's government.

"They are concerned Obama has given Morsi a green light to pass the constitution as part of a deal with the brotherood," he said. "They told me the mood in the army is to protect the demonstrators if they continue but the army can't stop the referendum. Only the people can."

He said that the referundum would put Egypt on a track to become an Islamist state.

"I believe it will boil down to how far would Morsi go and how much Obama will support him," he explained.

A Cabinet source said the Cabinet had discussed reviving the army's ability to make arrests if it were called upon to back up police, who normally provide security for elections.

Morsi's office said the "national dialogue," chaired by the president, had begun with about 40 political and other public figures discussing "means to reach a solution to differences over the referendum . . . and the constitutional decree".

The instability in Egypt worries the West, especially the United States, which has given Cairo billions of dollars in military and other aid since it made peace with Israel in 1979.

The army issued its statement while protesters were still camped out by the gates of the presidential palace.

The tens of thousands of Morsi foes who surged past tanks and barbed wire to reach the palace gates on Friday night had dispersed. But a hard core stayed overnight in a score of tents.

Some had spray-painted "Down with Morsi" on tanks of the elite Republican Guard posted there after clashes between rival groups killed at least seven people and wounded 350 this week.

Others draped the tanks with posters of Morsi and the word "Leave" scored across his face in red letters.

"We are no longer calling for scrapping the decree and delaying the referendum," Samir Fayez, a Christian protester at the palace, said. "We have one demand in five letters: leave."

Nearby, a Morsi supporter named Mohamed Hassan was quietly observing the scene. He suggested that the Muslim Brotherhood and its ultra-orthodox Salafi Islamist allies could easily overwhelm their foes if they chose to mobilise their base.

"The brotherhood and Salafis by themselves are few but they have millions of supporters who are at home and haven't taken it to the streets yet," murmured the 40-year-old engineer.

The Muslim Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, denounced opposition protests that have swirled around the walls of Morsi's palace, saying they "ruin legitimacy."

Badie said eight people, all of them brotherhood members, had been killed this week and urged the interior minister to explain why police had failed to prevent assailants from torching the organization's headquarters and 28 other offices.

"Get angry with the brotherhood and hate us as much as you like, but be reasonable and preserve Egypt's unity," he told a news conference. "We hope everyone gets back to dialogue."

The well-organized brotherhood, which thrust Morsi from obscurity to power, remains his surest source of support, with over 80 years of religious and political struggle behind it.

In the referendum, due to be followed by a parliamentary election, Islamist proponents of the constitution may benefit from the votes of millions of Egyptians desperate for the country to move on and revive its crippled economy.

A brotherhood official welcomed the army's "balanced" line. Former Arab League chief Amr Moussa, now an opposition leader, said the army was reacting to an "enormously dangerous" crisis.

The military was the power behind all previous presidents and an army council temporarily took over after Mubarak's fall. However, Morsi pushed the generals aside in August and they had shown little appetite to intervene in Egypt's latest crisis.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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