In the head-to-head showdown between Egypt’s embattled Islamist President and a largely secularist opposition, it is President Mohammed Morsi who appears to have blinked first.
In a surprise announcement late Friday evening, Vice-President Mahmoud Mekki said that Mr. Morsi is willing to defer to a later date a controversial constitutional referendum scheduled for Dec. 15, thereby appearing to meet one of the opposition’s key demands.
News of the statement was greeted with cheers by a crowd of several thousand demonstrators who had pushed aside barbed wire and scaled concrete barriers to take their protest against the President and his Muslim Brotherhood leadership right up to the walls of his palace in suburban Cairo.
Amr Hamzawy, a popular independent member of parliament and one of the leading figures in the opposition National Salvation Front, labelled the news “a positive step.” Former presidential candidate Ayman Nour, another opposition leader, also greeted it enthusiastically and said he’d now be willing to accept an invitation from Mr. Morsi to meet with the President to discuss the best way forward.
Justice Minister Ahmed Mekki, the Vice-President’s brother, explained to the state-owned Al-Ahram website, that Mr. Morsi “is open to the idea of postponing the referendum to reach consensus” over contentious articles in the proposed constitution, most of which deal with protection of minorities and the role of Islam in law. “He is ready for that even if it means the constitution will return to the assembly,” he said, referring to the 100-person constituent assembly charged with drafting a basic law for the country.
Opposition leaders were reportedly meeting late into the night to decide how to respond to the development. Earlier Friday, they had rejected the President’s offer of dialogue made in a national address late Thursday night, saying he had not met their minimum demands.
The opposition has insisted that the referendum be postponed, the proposed constitution be redrafted and that the President rescind a controversial Nov. 22 decree that purported to place presidential decisions above judicial review.
“The President believes the [opposition’s] demands cannot be fulfilled without dialogue,” Justice Minister Mekki said.
Both Mahmoud and Ahmed Mekki are former judges who had been active in the anti-Mubarak movement and who played a key role in establishing the independence of Egypt’s judiciary. As such, they are taken more seriously by the opposition, who object to Mr. Morsi having run roughshod over the judiciary.
In making the suggestion of delaying the referendum, the only conditions the President made, said Vice-President Mekki, were that opposition leaders enter into dialogue to reach agreement on a draft constitution, and that they not use the delay (beyond the legal deadline for holding the referendum) as the basis for striking down the proposed constitution.
The presidential offer came less than 48 hours after seven people were killed and hundreds injured in clashes between Morsi supporters and opponents outside the presidential palace. Six of the seven killed were Muslim Brotherhood supporters, who were buried Friday in emotion-charged ceremonies.
“With our souls and blood, we’ll fight for Islam,” a crowd of several thousand chanted at the funeral procession of two of the deceased at Al-Azhar mosque.
The President’s offer to postpone is not without opposition critics.
Mohamed ElBaradei, leader of the National Salvation Front, insisted Friday night that Mr. Morsi must cancel his Nov. 22 decree as well as postpone the referendum. But even he saw light at the end of the tunnel.
“If Morsi takes these steps, I know there will be a way, through dialogue and mutual understanding, for all of Egypt, Islamic and Christian, to sit together,” he said.
Hisham Kassem, founding publisher of the Egyptian independent Al Masry al-Youm newspaper and a leading human-rights activist, cautioned against swallowing Mr. Morsi’s “bait.”
“He’s trying to con everyone, just as Mubarak tried to do in his final days,” he said. “Morsi’s only hope is to have this Islamist constitution quickly passed by the Egyptian people.”
“If he backs off and lets a balanced constitution be voted on, then has parliamentary and presidential elections take place under its rules, it’ll be bye-bye Brotherhood, and he knows it,” Mr. Kassem said. “He’ll do anything to avoid that happening.”
Friday was a day of loud but mostly peaceful protests, in sharp contrast to those earlier in the week.
Crowds chanting, “We want to see the end of the regime,” the same refrain heard last year in the uprising against Mr. Mubarak, made their way to the presidential palace. They made no move to enter the grounds, but sprayed graffiti on the outside walls telling Mr. Morsi to “go.”
In a display reminiscent also of February, 2011, army tanks positioned just outside the palace made no move to stop the protesters, even as some climbed aboard to shake the soldiers’ hands.
Meanwhile, just a few kilometres away, some 2,000 Morsi supporters gathered outside a mosque, preparing to move, if necessary, to defend the President’s palace should the opposition protesters attempt to breach its walls.
Just before midnight, the Ministry of the Interior, apparently worried that events might spiral out of control, called on participants in both opposition and Morsi camps to go home “for the sake of the nation.”