Egyptian President Gives Army Police Powers Ahead of Vote

Egyptian Activists Warn of Violence Amid Rallies Over Charter
Egyptian army soldiers stand on top of a tank as opposition supporters and protesters wave national flags outside the presidential palace in Cairo. Photographer: Patrick Baz/AFP/Getty Images

Egyptian protesters gathered in the thousands near Mohamed Mursi’s presidential palace to demand the revocation of a draft constitution, while his Islamist supporters staged counter-rallies across the country.

Opposition groups say the charter, due to be put before voters in a Dec. 15 referendum, was drafted by an Islamist-dominated panel and fails to safeguard rights and freedoms. It’s demanding the cancellation of the vote. Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which supports the constitution, mobilized thousands of supporters in Cairo, Alexandria and other cities across the country.

Today’s marches risk a repeat of clashes last week between the rival camps, in which eight people died. Anti-Mursi demonstrators staging a sit-in in Cairo’s Tahrir Square were attacked by unidentified people in the early hours of today, leaving 16 injured by birdshot, the state-run Ahram Gate website reported, citing a local doctor.

Mursi told the army to help police ensure security, after weeks of political tensions and street protests sparked by the president’s Nov. 22 decree expanding his powers and his refusal to alter the referendum timetable. The unrest threatens to derail Egypt’s efforts to establish a stable democracy after last year’s uprising against Hosni Mubarak, and revive an economy that has been largely stalled since then.

Military Role

The military will play a role alongside police “to preserve security and protect vital state institutions” until the results of the referendum are announced, the state-run Middle East News Agency said. This includes the power to arrest civilians, it said.

The decision by Mursi to give the army policing powers has been criticized by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The U.S. is “deeply concerned” by developments and wants to see “those who are charged with maintaining security do so in a manner that respects human rights and freedom of expression,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters in Washington.

The Republican Guard stepped up security around the palace before today’s march, state-run Ahram Online reported. Television footage showed protesters toppling a wall of concrete blocks erected near the compound. Mahmoud Ghozlan, the Muslim Brotherhood’s spokesman, told Ahram Gate yesterday that supporters of the president shouldn’t head there during today’s rally, which he said will end at 10 p.m.

Mursi Supporters

Mursi supporters gathered in Cairo’s Nasr City neighborhood after dark, some chanting “yes, yes to the constitution,” and “the people want God’s law.”

Mohamed Hegazy, a 33-year-old owner of a shipping company, said he was supporting Mursi’s decisions and the charter in the interests of restoring stability.

“I have lost so much money since the revolution as every time we start building a state institution, it gets toppled,” he said, citing the dissolution of parliament in June. “Every time investors start to return, they see tensions, disbanding of state institutions and protests,” which scare them away, he said.

Mohamed Attia, a 27-year-old engineer, said he was taking part in the rally to “underline the legitimacy” of the president. “Short of reaching a consensus on the constitution, the view of the majority must be adopted,” he said. “The minority is trying to impose its positions.”

Protest Marches

As marches converged on the palace late today, anti-Mursi protesters yelled “Revolution,” and “the people want to topple the regime,” echoing the chants during the uprising that ousted Mubarak.

Ashraf Sabry, a 27-year-old accountant, said he took part in the rallies to demand “the rights of the people who died,” and protest “Mursi’s failure to follow through on any promises.”

“When Mursi won, we accepted and stayed at home. But now there are real grievances that made people take to the streets.” he said. “It took Hosni Mubarak 30 years to lose touch with what’s happening around him and how the people oppose him. After only five months, is Mursi not aware of how things are moving from bad to worse?”

Mursi’s reversal on Dec. 9 of the decree expanding his powers failed to defuse the tensions. The government also suspended a decision to raise sales and income taxes as part of an economic program set out after negotiations with the International Monetary Fund, local newspapers reported yesterday.

IMF Delay

Finance Minister Momtaz El-Saieed said in a phone interview today that Egypt will ask the IMF board to delay a decision on the $4.8 billion loan application until January. The board had been scheduled to discuss it on Dec. 19. The IMF confirmed in an e-mailed statement today that the request had been made “in light of the unfolding developments on the ground”

Egypt’s benchmark stock index is down almost 8 percent since Nov. 22. The Egyptian pound, subject to a managed float, extended its decline today and has lost 1 percent over the same period, as much as it fell in the previous 11 months.

Opposition groups including the Strong Egypt Party, the Social Democratic Party and the April 6 youth movement have urged their supporters to vote “No” to the charter. Many secular and Christian members of the panel that drafted it withdrew from the body, saying their views were ignored.

The Judges Club said most of its members won’t supervise the referendum, the head of the association, Ahmed El-Zind, told reporters in Cairo today. The draft charter falls short on “human rights and freedoms,” he said.

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