Defiant Morsi refuses to back down on referendum
Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi refused on Thursday to curb his sweeping powers or to call off the constitutional referendum that has triggered the country’s worst political crisis since the 2011 revolution.
Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi called for a national dialogue to solve the current political crisis during a live televised address to the nation Thursday. His comments follow overnight clashes between his supporters and opposition protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo, which claimed the lives of at least six people and left hundreds more wounded.
In his speech, Morsi appealed to the country to work together to solve the political crisis sweeping Egypt, and invited the opposition to sit down for talks on Saturday. Extending his condolences to the families of those killed during the previous night’s clashes, the Egyptian president also said plans for a December 15 referendum on a new draft constitution - the text of which lies at the heart of growing tensions in the country - would go forward.
Earlier in the day, tanks took up positions around the presidential palace while the Egyptian army set up barricades of barbed wire, ordering protesters to leave. Efforts to secure the area came after the army’s Republican Guard gave demonstrators a 3pm (13:00 GMT) deadline to clear out.
The army first deployed tanks and armoured personnel carriers to the area Thursday morning after pitched battles erupted Wednesday outside the Heliopolis presidential palace. The fighting had continued into Thursday morning in what were the first civilian clashes between the rival camps since last year’s ousting of former leader Hosni Mubarak.
The unrest had also spread to other cities overnight, including Ismailia, east of Cairo, where protesters stormed and set alight the headquarters of Morsi’s Freedom and Justice Party, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The latest violence has underscored deep divisions in the world’s most populous Arab nation less than 10 days before the country is due to head to the polls for a referendum on a new constitution that the opposition considers deeply flawed.
Leaders of both camps have blamed the other side for the latest clashes that have pitted Egypt’s Islamists – including Brotherhood supporters and Salafists – against a largely liberal secular opposition.
The clashes in Cairo erupted Wednesday after the vice-president, Mahmoud Mekki, spoke to the press to say that there would be no backing down by Morsi. Shortly afterwards, the president’s supporters descended on the area around the palace where opponents were staging a sit-in.
Morsi 'responsible for the violence'
As clashes raged for hours, with rocks and petrol bombs flying between the two sides and the occasional sounds of gunshots, leading opposition activists held a press conference Wednesday evening.
In his remarks to the press, Mohamed ElBaradei, a former diplomat and now a leading opposition advocate of reform, said Morsi was “completely responsible for the violence that is happening in Egypt today”.
The duelling demonstrations are part of a political crisis that came to the forefront after Morsi issued a series of decrees on November 22 granting himself unprecedented powers that placed him beyond the reach of the judiciary.
In a bid to quell public anger, Morsi stressed that the new presidential decrees would only hold until a new constitution was approved. But the political crisis worsened after Morsi pushed through the approval of a draft constitution that was drawn up by an Islamist-led constituent assembly.
Despite widespread protests, the Egyptian president has refused to back down on the December 15 referendum.
The opposition National Salvation Front, which ElBaradei is part of, is demanding Morsi rescind the controversial presidential decrees and scrap the draft constitution which they say curtails freedom and leans the country towards Islamism.
Within the Islamist camp, there have been signs of divisions, with three members of Morsi’s advisory team resigning Wednesday over the crisis, according to presidential sources. Seif Abdel Fattah, Ayman al-Sayyad and Amr al-Leithy have tendered their resignations, bringing to six the number of presidential staff who have quit in the row over the decree.
(FRANCE 24 with wires)