Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has given the army temporary power to arrest civilians during a constitutional referendum he is determined to push through, despite the risk of bloodshed between his supporters and opponents.
Seven people were killed and hundreds wounded last week in clashes between the Muslim Brotherhood and critics besieging Mr Morsi’s graffiti-daubed presidential palace. Both sides plan mass rallies today.
The elite Republican Guard has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the palace, which it ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades after last week’s violence.
Mr Morsi has rescinded last month’s decree giving him wide powers, but he is going ahead with Saturday’s referendum on a constitution seen by supporters as a triumph for democracy and by many liberals as a betrayal.
A decree issued by him late on Sunday gives the armed forces the power to arrest civilians and refer them to prosecutors until the announcement of the results of the referendum, which the protesters want cancelled.
Despite its limited nature, the edict will revive memories of Hosni Mubarak’s emergency law, also introduced as a temporary move, under which military or state security courts tried thousands of political dissidents and Islamist militants over decades.
But a military source said: “The latest law giving the armed forces the right to arrest anyone involved in illegal actions such as burning buildings or damaging public sites is to ensure security during the referendum only.”
A presidential spokesman said the army would “return [to barracks] as soon as the referendum is over”.