CAIRO – Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi called Saturday for a referendum in two weeks on a contentious draft constitution, setting a date for another milestone in the country’s transition to democracy. Widespread disputes over the charter and Morsi’s recent seizure of near absolute power have marred the process and thrown the country into turmoil.
As has often been the case in the nearly two years since Hosni Mubarak was ousted from the presidency, what should have been a cause for national celebration turned into dueling protests between opponents and supporters of how the transition has been managed – largely divided along Islamist and secular lines.
More than 100,000 Morsi supporters organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi groups took to the streets of Cairo and other cities Saturday, one day after a massive opposition demonstration against his recent decrees giving him immunity from judicial oversight and the charter that was rushed through an assembly packed with allies.
The presidency has been locked in a tug of war with the powerful judiciary and secular and Christian activists since Morsi granted himself far-reaching powers on Nov. 22 in a bid to pre-empt an expected decision by the Supreme Constitutional Court today to dissolve the constitutional panel, as it had done the Islamist-led parliament earlier this year.
Morsi also decreed that courts cannot dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council – another decision slated to be before the Constitutional Court today. In protest, most of the nation’s judges have gone on strike.
It was not clear if Egypt’s highest court would go ahead with today’s session. Any move to do so would be a direct challenge to Morsi.
“After receiving this draft constitution, and out of keenness to build the nation’s institutions without delay or stalling, I will issue today the call for a public referendum on this draft charter on Saturday, Dec. 15,” Morsi said. “I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt.”
The dispute has thrown Egypt into a fresh round of turmoil after months of protests, rising crime and economic woes. It also has mobilized an increasingly cohesive opposition leadership of prominent liberal and secular politicians.
Late on Saturday, a few thousand pro-Morsi supporters gathered outside the building of the Supreme Constitutional Court and set up tents, heightening the tension.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland lamented the lack of consensus in Egypt’s constitution-writing process.
But other U.S. officials said there were internal debates over whether to criticize the draft constitution for limiting freedom of expression, failing to grant freedom of worship, criminalizing blasphemy and eroding women’s rights guarantees.
Acknowledging the disagreements, Morsi said he didn’t want to delay the transition and said the draft constitution is another brick in Egypt’s democratic experience. He also called for a national dialogue in his nationally televised address to the constitutional assembly.
The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, alleges the courts are dominated by Mubarak-era judges trying to stall progress.
“I tell my opponents before my supporters, help me to carry out this responsibility you bestowed upon me in managing the country’s affairs,” Morsi said, urging protesters to take their opposition to the ballot box. “With us all we build the nation.”
As he announced the date, his supporters holding their rally near Cairo University danced and chanted in celebration. “The people support the president’s decision!” they chanted.
Across the Nile River, a few thousand of Morsi’s opponents rallying in Cairo’s Tahrir Square raised their shoes to show contempt for the plan.
Prominent democracy advocate Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate who is a member of the opposition coalition leadership, said on his Twitter account that Morsi put to a referendum a constitution that “undermines basic freedoms and violates universal rights. The struggle continues.”