Last updated: December 9, 2012 7:37 pm

Egypt protests warning despite concession

Opposition groups in Egypt on Sunday said they rejected a referendum on a controversial new constitution to be held on December 15, and vowed to stage more protests in a bid to maintain pressure on President Mohamed Morsi to postpone the vote.

The Islamist president earlier in the day scrapped an edict giving himself wide-ranging powers. The decree had sparked an explosion of public protest across the country which degenerated into clashes between Islamists and their opponents that left seven dead and many more injured over the past week.

However, Mr Morsi’s partial concession failed to quell opposition anger that the draft constitution drawn up by an Islamist-dominated assembly under his expanded powers remained valid. The president’s new decree states that decisions made under the former edict remain in force and cannot be challenged in court.

Opposition activists and political groups are demanding that Mr Morsi postpone the referendum and overhaul the proposed constitution, which they say opens the door for a bigger role for religion in public life and provides weak protection for human rights.

After talks on Sunday, leaders of the National Salvation Front, an alliance of political groups, said they refused to give legitimacy to a referendum “which will inevitably lead to more strife and division”.

It is unclear whether the alliance, which is headed by Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate, will mobilise for a No vote or a boycott of the referendum. Insiders say that the Salvation front is disunited and has limited sway over the crowds that have turned out to protest their opposition to the president’s decrees.

“There are many angry people,” said Khaled Abdel Hameed, an official of the Popular Socialist Alliance. “Some believe that we should continue to escalate our demands. It is also probable that there won’t be a single position and that some parties will call for a boycott and others for a No vote.”

Mr Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group, the country’s largest political force, and his ultraconservative Salafi allies, the second largest electoral bloc, have already started their campaign in favour of the constitution.

They have also portrayed the dispute over the constitution as one between the supporters of Islam and its enemies – a potent message in this deeply religious country.

In a televised statement at the weekend, Khairat al-Shater, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, suggested that the latest turmoil was the result of a foreign and local conspiracy to derail Islamist rule. In a bid to the delegitimise opposition to Mr Morsi he hinted that Mossad, the Israeli secret service, might be involved.

In other remarks, which deepened fears for Egypt’s already fraught relations between the Muslim majority and the Coptic Christian minority, he said that “they say that 80 per cent of the protesters in front of the presidential palace are Copts”.

On Saturday, a military statement urged dialogue and warned of “disastrous” consequences” that it “will not allow” if the crisis continued to escalate. That prompted speculation that the army could step in to restore order, although analysts say it is unlikely the military, whose leadership was the target of scathing criticism for its handling of Egypt’s transition, would be directly engaged in politics.

The draft constitution assures core demands of the army, protecting it from civilian scrutiny and giving it the right to try in its own tribunals those who “damage” its interests.

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