CAIRO – Egypt postponed early voting on a contentious draft constitution, and aides to President Mohammed Morsi floated the possibility of canceling the whole referendum in the first signs Friday that the Islamic leader is finally yielding to days of protests and deadly street clashes.
Tens of thousands marched on the presidential palace after pushing past barbed wire fences installed by the army and calling for Morsi to step down. Thousands also camped out in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011.
A spokesman for Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood urged the group’s supporters to practice “self-restraint” after hundreds gathered in front of a mosque near the presidential palace. He appealed for them not to march to the palace and to avoid confrontation.
The announcement by the election committee head Ismail Hamdi to delay early voting on the charter came as a surprise, and it was difficult to predict whether it will lead to a breakthrough in the political crisis.
The president’s aides said the move would ease some pressure and would provide room for negotiations with the opposition.
But Morsi’s opponents have rejected talks, saying he must first cancel the referendum and meet other demands. Late Friday, an opposition umbrella group called for an open-ended sit-in in front of the presidential palace.
The crisis began Nov. 22, when Morsi issued a decree that gave him absolute powers and immunity from judicial oversight. It deepened when he called for a Dec. 15 national referendum on the draft constitution hurriedly produced by the Islamist-led constituent assembly. The draft was infused with articles that liberals fear would pave the way for Islamizing Egypt.
Legal Affairs Minister Mohammed Mahsoub said the administration was weighing several proposals – including calling off the referendum and returning it to the constituent assembly for changes. Another possibility was disbanding the constituent assembly and forming a new one, either by direct vote or an agreement among the political forces.
Some protesters expressed optimism after they heard that the early voting for Egyptians abroad, which was due to begin today, had been put off until Dec. 5.
“This looks like the beginning of a retraction,” said Dr. Mohsen Ibrahim, a 56-year-old demonstrator. “This means Morsi may postpone the referendum. It looks like the pressure is working out.”