EGYPTIAN President Mohammed Morsi announced a snap referendum on the contentious new draft constitution last night, 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 been the case for nearly two years since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, what should have been a cause for national celebration turned into duelling protest between opponents and supporters of how the transition has been managed – largely divided along Islamist and secular lines.
Opposition leaders have condemned the constitution, claiming its basis in Islamic laws could undermine the rights of women and freedom of speech. Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel peace prize laureate and leader of the liberal Constitution Party, called it a violation of universal values and vowed that the struggle against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood would continue.
Morsi made the announcement to coincide with tens of thousands of his supporters, organised by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi groups, taking to the streets of Cairo and other cities yesterday.
This was in response to a massive opposition demonstration on Friday against his recent decrees giving him immunity from judicial oversight and the charter that was rushed through an assembly packed with allies.
“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, 15 December,” Morsi said. “I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt.”
The demonstrations yesterday 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.
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.
“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.
Morsi has claimed 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.
“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 approved it in a 16-hour voting session just after dawn on Friday.
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.
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.