Last updated: December 5, 2012 10:49 am

Egypt opposition makes show of unity

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Egyptian protesters demonstrate outside of the presidential palace in Cairo©AFP

Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters took their battle against President Mohamed Morsi to the presidential palace on Tuesday as a newly united opposition tried to maintain momentum ahead of next week’s referendum on the constitution.

Demonstrators flooded the streets around the palace right up to its perimeter wall. They tore down barbed-wire barriers erected by police, who withdrew after brief skirmishes in which they fired teargas.

Mr Morsi left the palace via a back entrance on Tuesday but returned to his desk on Wednesday morning, an official said, as some 200 people continued to protest outside. The riot police had been withdrawn, Reuters reported.

Tuesday’s mass protest was the third in a fortnight against Mr Morsi’s assumption of expanded powers and his decision to hold a plebiscite on a hastily drafted constitution. The opposition, usually dismissed by the Islamists as representing an out-of-touch elite, has been able to mobilise anti-Morsi feeling on a large scale.

The normally weak liberal, leftwing and secular opposition has formed a so-called Salvation Front, which is leading the campaign against Mr Morsi and comprises two dozen political groups including ones headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate, and former presidential candidates Amr Moussa and Hamdeen Sabahi.

Analysts say Mr Morsi’s actions have given the movement an opportunity to establish itself as a viable force in Egyptian politics. Buoyed by the huge turnout, a Salvation Front spokesman said on television that it would call on Mr Morsi to relinquish the powers he had recently assumed and call off the December 15 constitutional referendum. It also wants the president to set up a new body to amend or rewrite the draft constitution and open a national dialogue.

“We’re trying to show that there is an opposition, to dismantle the claims by Morsi that 90 per cent of Egyptians are with him,” said Malak Makkar, 21, a student at American University in Cairo.

The president has argued that his new powers were necessary to overcome obstructions by judges determined to derail the transitions and dismantle elected bodies dominated by Islamists. Tired of turmoil, many Egyptians appear inclined to support him and analysts believe he is likely to win the referendum on the constitution.

“Morsi has done the opposition a huge favour,” said Mirette Mabrouk, a non-resident fellow with the Brookings Institution. “He has managed to shake off everyone who was sitting on the fence. He has frightened and unsettled a lot of people.”

Mohamed Aboul Ghar, the leader of the Egyptian Socialist Democratic party, said his party had attracted as many new members in the past two weeks as it had during the previous eight months.

“But will this opposition unity last? There is a question mark here,” he said.

If Mr Morsi refuses to grant any concessions, the Salvation Front is likely to keep up its protests but will also push for a “No” vote in the referendum rather than boycott it, as some had demanded.

“I am with a No vote,” said Khaled Abdel Hameed, a leader of the Popular Socialist Alliance party. “I think we have to fight the battle. We should go out and mobilise for the No. I know there are some in the opposition who want a boycott, as a chance to delegitimise the referendum, but I think we have not reached this stage. Morsi has not reached the dictatorial level of Mubarak.”

Mr Aboul Ghar said he had “slim hope” that the referendum results would favour the opposition.

“But even if we lose, we will have learnt to mobilise people,” he said. “If we get a 40 per cent share of the vote, we will have a stronger position and the constitution will be illegitimate and we will show that we are not a zero as they say.”

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