Tens of thousands of Islamists rallied across Egypt yesterday in support of president Mohammed Morsi’s efforts to push through a new draft constitution despite widespread opposition from secular activists and parts of the judiciary.
The demonstrations were the largest involving Morsi supporters since he came to office in June. They were viewed as a test of strength for Islamists aiming to counteract mass protests against his decision to seize near-absolute power and the fast-tracking of an outline constitution by an Islamist-led assembly, which pre-empted a constitutional court ruling today on whether the body should be dissolved.
Morsi has said he acted to prevent courts led by people allied to Hosni Mubarak’s ousted regime from delaying a transition to democracy. But his decision last week to put himself above judicial oversight has plunged Egypt into turmoil and mobilised an increasingly cohesive opposition leadership of liberal and secular politicians, quite unlike the leaderless youth uprising last year that toppled Mubarak.
Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, organised yesterday’s protests a day after the opposition’s, in a bid to avoid clashes following days of street skirmishes.
“The people support the president’s decision!” chanted crowds outside Cairo University, where thousands had gathered by midday. They held aloft posters that read “Yes to stability” and “Yes to Islamic law.” Protests elsewhere were expected to also attract large crowds later in the day. The rallies were dubbed “Shariyya and Sharia”, Arabic for “legitimacy and Islamic law”.
Members of the assembly, who wrote the draft constitution and approved it in a 16-hour voting session just after dawn on Friday, were expected to hand the final draft to Morsi last night. He is now expected to set a date for a referendum on the document, possibly within a fortnight.
The forcing of the drafting process was seen as a bid to get round an expected legal challenge that threatened to dissolve the drafting panel and cause delay. The assembly, which worked on the draft for months, has been marred by dispute, with liberal, secular and Christian members quitting in protest at Islamists “hijacking” the process.
In June, the constitutional court dissolved parliament’s Islamist-led lower chamber, ruling that the elections were unfair. It was to rule on the legality of the constitutional assembly today.
It is not clear, though, what the standing of such a ruling would be since Morsi granted himself near absolute power last week that deemed his decisions above the courts. Islamists insist Morsi is Egypt’s first freely elected president and argue the liberals and activists do not represent the majority of Egyptians, putting him above legal challenge.
Student Ibrahim Galal, 21, claimed Tahrir Square protesters had been mobilised largely by members of the old regime who opposed Morsi.
“If it’s about numbers, we too can mobilise. Let the ballot box speak. Not everyone can speak for the people,” he said.
“Why are you afraid of the ballot!” chanted crowds at the pro-Morsi rally yesterday.
Tens of thousands of his supporters gathered in Cairo but stayed away from Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the anti-Mubarak revolution and the focus of opposition rallies which drew 200,000 people on Friday calling for the draft constitution to be thrown out and demanding Morsi repeal his decrees. Some judges’ groups have announced strikes demanding he rescind his decrees.
In the northern coastal city of Alexandria yesterday, hundreds of riot police had to keep apart several thousand pro- and anti-Morsi protesters, who had clashed on Friday. Near Cairo University, dozens of Brotherhood buses were parked after transporting people from outside the capital to the rally. Thousands more arrived on foot, chanting in support of the president.
“Our message to seculars and liberals… this is the real million-man protest,” ultra-conservative Salafi Nour Party leader Yasser Borhani told the crowd from the top of a stage.
The Brotherhood had said it would hold yesterday’s rally in Tahrir Square but changed the location to avoid violence. The group said it also cancelled its rally in the southern city of Luxor after clashes between rival camps on Friday. So far two people have died and hundreds have been injured in two weeks of upheaval. The rival street protests in recent days highlight the sharp divisions in Egypt nearly two years after the uprising that united the country to oust Mubarak.
In last winter’s elections, the Brotherhood and more conservative Islamists were the biggest winners, securing nearly 75 per cent of the seats in parliament before it was dissolved by the courts.
Liberals also highlight the fact that Morsi won only 25 per cent of votes in the first round of presidential elections. He went on to win the run-off by just over 50 per cent against a former regime figure.
The opposition is considering several responses, including boycotting the referendum, an intensified street campaign of protests and civil disobedience. But some acknowledge that the opposition does not have enough time or reach to launch a campaign to encourage people to vote against the draft constitution in time.