A concession offered by president Mohamed Morsi failed to placate opponents who accused him yesterday of plunging Egypt deeper into turmoil by refusing to postpone a vote on a constitution shaped by Islamists.
Islamists say they see the referendum as sealing a democratic transition that began when a popular uprising toppled Hosni Mubarak 22 months ago after three decades of military-backed one-man rule.
Their liberal, leftist, and Christian adversaries say the document being fast-tracked to a vote could threaten freedoms and fails to embrace the diversity of Egypt’s 83m people.
More protests were planned near Morsi’s palace, despite tanks, barbed wire and other barriers installed last week after clashes between Islamists and their rivals killed seven people.
Morsi had given some ground the previous day when he retracted a fiercely contested decree giving himself extra powers and shielding his decisions from judicial review.
But the president insisted the referendum go ahead next Saturday and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he sprang, urged the opposition to accept the poll’s verdict. Ahmed Said, a liberal leader of the main opposition National Salvation Front, described the race to a referendum as “shocking” and an “act of war” against Egyptians.
Egypt is torn between Islamists and their rivals, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out other voices and restrict social freedoms.
Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said the scrapping of Morsi’s decree had removed any reason for controversy. “We ask others to announce their acceptance of the referendum result,” he said on the group’s Facebook page, asking whether the opposition would accept “the basics of democracy”.
The retraction of Morsi’s Nov 22 decree, announced after a “national dialogue” boycotted by almost all the president’s critics, has not bridged a deep political divide.
Prime minister Hisham Kandil, a technocrat with Islamist leanings, said the referendum was the best test of opinion. “The people are the makers of the future as long as they have the freedom to resort to the ballot box in a democratic, free, and fair vote,” he said.
But opposition factions want the document re-drafted before any vote.
Egypt tipped into turmoil after Morsi grabbed powers to stop any court action aimed at hindering the transition. An assembly led by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists then swiftly approved the constitution it had spent six months drafting.
Opponents, including minority Christians, had already quit the assembly in dismay, saying their voices were being ignored.
A leftist group led by defeated presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahy demanded the referendum be deferred until a consensus could be reached on a new draft, saying there could be “no dialogue while blood is being spilled in the streets”.