Mursi Opens the Door to Delaying Referendum Amid Protests

Egyptian Protesters Clash in Cairo Amid Constitution Dispute
Supporters of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi clash with anti-Morsi protesters outside the Egyptian presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, on Dec. 5, 2012. Photographer: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

President Mohamed Mursi, at the end of a day in which tens of thousands of Egyptian protested outside the presidential palace, raised the possibility of delaying a Dec. 15 referendum on a draft constitution.

Vice President Mahmoud Mekki said yesterday Mursi is willing to delay the referendum subject to conditions, including that the opposition agrees to talks and won’t go to the courts seeking further delay, according to the state-run Ahram Online website. It wasn’t clear how long a delay may be considered and whether the time would be used to make changes in the draft document.

Opposition groups including the National Salvation Front, the al-Wafd party and the April 6 youth movement had rejected Mursi’s offer, made in a televised address on Dec. 6, of “comprehensive” talks about 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.

Yesterday, Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of National Salvation Front, called on Mursi to rescind his Nov. 22 decree immediately and to postpone the referendum “until we reach a national compromise,” speaking on Egyptian satellite broadcaster ONtv.

“I trust the patriotism of President Mursi and, when he takes those two steps, the Egyptian people will respond,” ElBaradei said.

Mursi is offering to amend aspects of his decree, not rescind it. Officials said the government is delaying the start of voting by expatriate Egyptians from today to Dec. 12, Ahram Online said.

Growing Tensions

Mursi’s presidential statement yesterday followed a day of protest by supporters and opponents, and attacks against government buildings and Muslim Brotherhood offices. At least 53 people were hurt in clashes around the country, including 11 in Cairo, according to the Middle East News Agency. No deaths were reported.

Thousands of Islamists and supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, which backs Mursi, 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 palace, where the worst violence of the week has occurred, and Tahrir Square, scene of the biggest protests during last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak.

Republican guards around the palace left their positions and anti-Mursi protesters took over, removing razor wires and breaching the barriers, Al Arabiya television reported.

‘Leave, Leave’

Protesters chanting “leave, leave” didn’t seem intent on forcing their way into the palace, the Al Arabiya correspondent said from the scene. Mursi and other officials aren’t at the palace, according to the television network.

Secular activists and other opposition groups say the constitution was hijacked by Islamists, and are demanding that Mursi abandon the referendum.

The protesters set up barricades along the street leading to the palace in Cairo’s Heliopolis district in preparation for a sit-in, and police sought to prevent Mursi’s Brotherhood supporters a few miles away from marching to confront them, Ahram Online said. Prime Minister Hisham Qandil appealed for calm in a statement.

Escalating Violence

The wave of protests against Mursi and the escalating violence threaten 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 upheaval kept investors and tourists away.

The government yesterday released 138 people who had been detained during earlier protests, Al Jazeera television reported.

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

Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil called on opposition leaders yesterday to agree to talks with Mursi, the cabinet said in an e-mailed statement. Qandil said the current situation will hurt the Egyptian economy.

The protests and renewed violence have sent Egyptian stocks plunging. The benchmark EGX 30 index slumped 4.6 percent Dec. 6, extending its loss since Mursi’s decree to 11 percent. Markets in Egypt were closed yesterday. The cost of insuring Egyptian bonds through five-year credit-default swaps jumped to a three-month high while the pound weakened to the lowest level in eight years.

Rights Issues

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 United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, criticized the draft constitution, saying it has “worrying omissions and ambiguities, and in some areas the protections in it are even weaker than the 1971 constitution it is supposed to replace.”

“I am highly concerned, for example, by the absence in the current draft of any reference to the international human rights treaties which Egypt has ratified and is bound to uphold,” she said in a statement yesterday.

Sharia Law

While noting that the draft constitution guarantees equality before the law in rights and duties with no discrimination, Pillay said that “it does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex, religion and origin” and maintains language from the 1971 constitution concerning Sharia law as the primary source of legislation and jurisprudence.

“The draft constitution guarantees the freedom of faith, but only mentions the three monotheistic religions, raising concern for all other religious groups, including resident minorities such as the Baha’i community,” Pillay said.

She also expressed concern about potential restraints on freedom of the press and authorization for trials of civilians before military courts in certain circumstances, a provision that contradicts international standards.

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