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Tensions persist as Egyptian President scraps controversial decree

Anti-Morsi protesters stand on a military tank in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, December 8, 2012. Egypt's military, stepping into a crisis pitting Islamist President Mohamed Mursi against opponents who accuse him of grabbing excessive power, said on Saturday only dialogue could avert “catastrophe.”


Egypt's President scrapped a decree that gave him extra powers and ignited violent protests, but irate opponents said on Sunday he had deepened the conflict by pressing on with a vote on a constitution shaped by Islamists.

President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist partisans have insisted the referendum go ahead on Dec. 15 to seal a democratic transition that began when a popular uprising felled Hosni Mubarak 22 months ago after three decades of one-man rule.

The retraction of Mr. Morsi's Nov. 22 decree, announced around midnight after a "national dialogue" boycotted by almost all the president's opponents, has failed to calm a war of words.

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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 in a cabinet statement.

But opposition factions, uncertain of their ability to vote down the constitution against the Islamists' organizational muscle, want the document redrafted before any vote.

Ahmed Said, a liberal leader of the main opposition National Salvation Front, said Mr. Morsi's withdrawal of his Nov. 22 decree had not annulled its consequences, describing the race to a referendum as "shocking" and an "act of war" against Egyptians.

Egypt's main opposition coalition announced on Sunday its rejection of the constitutional referendum.

In a statement read by its spokesman, the National Salvation Front also called for mass protests on Tuesday against a draft constitution that it said lacked consensus and did not properly represent the interests of women and minorities.

"The National Salvation Front rejects the referendum to be held on Dec. 15," Hussein Abdel Ghani told a news conference. "We are against this process from start to finish."

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A statement from the Front said: "Holding a referendum now in the absence of security reflects haste and an absence of a sense of responsibility on the part of the regime, which risks pushing the country towards violent confrontation."

Egypt's Islamist movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, will also hold a rival demonstration on Tuesday, a Brotherhood spokesman told AFP.

Egypt tipped into turmoil after Mr. Morsi grabbed powers to stop any court action to hinder the transition. An assembly led by Mr. Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists then swiftly approved the constitution it had spent six months drafting.

Liberals, leftists, Christians and others had already quit the assembly in dismay, saying their voices were being ignored.

The April 6 movement, prominent in the anti-Mubarak revolt, derided the result of Saturday's talks as "manipulation and a continuation of deception in the name of law and legitimacy".

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."

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But Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Mahmoud Ghozlan said scrapping Mr. Morsi's decree had removed any cause 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."

More protests were planned near Mr. Morsi's palace, despite tanks, barbed wire and other barriers installed last week after clashes between Islamists and their rivals killed seven people.

"A constitution without consensus can't go to a referendum," said Hermes Fawzi, 28, a protester outside the palace. "It's not logical that just one part of society makes the constitution."

After the dialogue hosted by Mr. Morsi, a spokesman announced that the president had issued a new decree whose first article "cancels the constitutional declaration" of Nov. 22. He said the referendum could not be delayed for legal reasons.

Egypt is torn between Islamists, who were suppressed for decades, and their rivals, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out other voices and restrict social freedoms. Many Egyptians just crave stability and economic recovery.

Each side has mobilized tens of thousands of supporters in rival rallies in Cairo and other cities. Mr. Morsi's foes have chanted for his downfall. Islamists fear a plot to oust the most populous Arab nation's first freely elected president.

Islamists reckon they can win the referendum and, once the new constitution is in place, an election for a new parliament about two months later. The Islamist-led lower house elected this year was dissolved after a few months by a court order.

Investors appeared relieved at Mr. Morsi's retraction of his decree, sending Egyptian stocks 4.4 per cent higher on Sunday. Markets are awaiting approval of a $4.8-billion (U.S.) IMF loan later this month designed to support the budget and economic reforms.

The new decree removed some parts of the old one that had angered the opposition, including an article that had given Mr. Morsi broad powers to confront threats to the revolution or the nation – wording that critics said gave him arbitrary authority.

It also dropped an article that had shielded Mr. Morsi's actions from the courts until a new parliament was elected, reflecting his distrust of a judiciary largely unreformed from Mr. Mubarak's era. But the new decree said "constitutional declarations including this declaration" remained beyond judicial review.

The new decree also set procedures to form an assembly to write a new constitution if Egyptians vote this draft down.

The military, which led Egypt's transition for 16 turbulent months after Mr. Mubarak fell, told feuding factions on Saturday that only dialogue could avert "catastrophe." But a military source said these remarks did not herald an army takeover.

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