Mursi Says Referendum to Proceed as Protests Claim Lives

Egyptian Presidential Guards Deploy Outside Palace After Clashes
Protesters throw a flare at the Egyptian riot police during clashes between members of the Muslim Brotherhood and supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi and anti-Mursi demonstrators on the road leading to the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo. Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

President Mohamed Mursi’s supporters and opponents, who clashed violently earlier this week, held rallies in Cairo after the Egyptian leader vowed to proceed with a Dec. 15 referendum on a new constitution.

Thousands of Islamists and supporters of Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood marched from the Al-Azhar mosque in a funeral procession for two of the six people killed during protests in the past two days. “With our souls and blood we’ll fight for Islam,” they chanted.

Tens of thousands of opposition supporters gathered at the presidential palace, where the worst violence of this week has occurred, and Tahrir Square, scene of the biggest protests during last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak. The Republican Guard, which has been protecting the palace, called up reinforcements, the state-run Ahram Gate website said.

The wave of protests against Mursi and the escalating violence threatens to derail Egypt’s efforts to establish a democracy after last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak, and restore an economy that has stalled as political upheavals kept investors and tourists away. Secular activists and other opposition groups say the constitution was hijacked by Islamists, and are demanding that Mursi abandon the referendum.

Clashes between the rival camps were reported in other parts of Egypt, including Alexandria and Kafr el-Sheikh and Sharqiya in the Nile Delta.

Obama Call

Opposition groups including the National Salvation Front, the al-Wafd party and the April 6 youth movement rejected Mursi’s offer, made in a televised address late yesterday, of “comprehensive” talks over the proposed constitution. The president refused to withdraw his Nov. 22 decree, which exempts his decisions from judicial review and extends similar protection to the Islamist-dominated panel that drafted the constitution.

Military engineers erected a concrete wall overnight to keep protesters away from the presidential compound, the official Middle East News Agency said. Protesters in that area have defied orders by the Republican Guard to leave.

U.S. President Barack Obama, who hailed Mursi for his role in negotiating a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas last month, called his Egyptian counterpart to “express his deep concern” about the deaths and injuries stemming from protests, according to a White House statement. Obama urged Mursi to open an unconditional dialogue with the opposition, saying it’s “essential for Egyptian leaders across the political spectrum to put aside their differences and come together to agree on a path that will move Egypt forward,” the White House said.

Shoes Raised

Mursi reminded Egyptians in his televised address that the new powers are temporary, and accused officials from the Mubarak era of playing a role in the violence.

“The constitutional decree and all its effects will end as soon as the results of the referendum are announced -- be it a yes or a no,” he said. “What I wanted by issuing this decree is to get to the stage of accomplishing the constitution, and the referendum on it to allow this great people to express their will.”

There are signs of discontent within Mursi’s administration over his handling of the protests. Rafik Habib quit as a presidential adviser and as a Coptic Christian member of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, according to Ahram Online. Zaghloul el-Balshi, the general secretary of the committee overseeing the constitutional referendum, resigned over the “spilled Egyptian blood,” Ahram said.

‘No Solution’

Opposition activists say the draft constitution fails to protect freedoms and minority rights, and accuse Mursi and the Brotherhood of betraying the aims of last year’s uprising against Mubarak. Mursi, who won election in June, and his Islamist supporters say they are trying to protect the gains of the revolution against remnants of the old regime.

The protests and renewed violence have sent Egyptian stocks plunging. The benchmark EGX 30 index slumped 4.6 percent yesterday, extending its loss since Mursi’s decree to 11 percent. Markets in Egypt are closed today.

The cost of insuring Egyptian bonds through five-year credit-default swaps jumped to a three-month high yesterday, while the pound weakened to the lowest level in eight years.

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