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Africa

Egypt set for rival protests days before referendum

© AFP

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2012-12-11

Egypt was preparing for rival protests in Cairo on Tuesday, ahead of a December 15 referendum on a controversial draft constitution, a day after President Mohammed Morsi granted the army police powers, including the right to arrest civilians.

Egypt is bracing for rival protests in Cairo on Tuesday over a bitterly divisive referendum on a new constitution, prompting President Mohamed Morsi to order the army to help "preserve security".

The duelling demonstrations, organised by Islamists backing Morsi and the largely secular opposition, raised fears of street clashes like ones last week in which seven people were killed and hundreds injured.

FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Egypt, Christopher Moore, said that until now the two camps have mostly kept apart. “Their paths shouldn’t cross today," he said. "Muslim Brotherhood supporters [said] they’ve had strict orders not to get involved in clashes.”

“But these are the biggest demonstrations for the last few days – the situation on the streets is always fluid and unpredictable,” he added.

'Dangerous loophole'

Morsi on Monday gave the country's soldiers police powers, saying "all have powers of legal arrest". He also instructed the military to cooperate fully with police "to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum".

The military, which has urged dialogue and warned it "will not allow" the political crisis to deteriorate, has for several days kept tanks and troops deployed around Morsi's presidential palace.

Late on Monday, soldiers watched without intervening as more than 100 anti-Morsi demonstrators milled around in front of the presidential palace.

The rights group Amnesty International has called Morsi's security decree "a dangerous loophole which may well lead to the military trial of civilians".

The group said the measure recalled the 16 months of army rule that followed the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak last year, until Morsi's election in June 2012.

Egyptians are also worried about the army being given extra powers. “Egyptians have the military rule – after Hosni Mubarak – fresh in their minds and everything that went with it … all of that is adding to the tense atmosphere,” Moore said.

'No reference to human rights'

The opposition, made up of secular, liberal, leftwing and Christian groups, has said it will escalate protests to scupper the referendum.

It views the new constitution largely drawn up by Morsi's Islamist allies, including some who want Sharia law, as undermining the country's secular tradition, human rights and gender rights, as well as the independence of the judiciary.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said Monday that the draft charter "contains no reference to human rights treaties and conventions ratified by Egypt, reflecting ... disdain for these agreements".

Morsi has defiantly pushed on with the draft, seeing it as necessary to secure democratic reform in the wake of Mubarak's 30-year autocratic rule.

His camp argues that it is up to the people to accept or reject the draft constitution when they vote in the referendum on Saturday.

Calls for protest

The main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, has called for huge protests in Cairo on Tuesday and a total rejection of the constitutional referendum.

"We do not recognise the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people," National Salvation Front spokesman Sameh Ashour told a news conference on Sunday.

The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, said Islamist movements would counter the protests with their own big rallies in the capital in support of the referendum.

"We are calling for a demonstration Tuesday under the slogan 'Yes to legitimacy'," the Brotherhood's spokesman, Mahmoud Ghozlan, told AFP.

The United States called for peaceful protests and restraint by those charged with maintaining security.

"We want to see those exercising their right of freedom of expression to do so peacefully, but we also want to see the Egyptian government and security forces respecting that freedom of peaceful expression and assembly and to exercise restraint," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Cairo schools informed parents they would be closed as a precaution on Tuesday.

If the charter is rejected, Morsi has promised to have a new one drawn up by 100 officials chosen directly by the public rather than appointed by the Islamist-dominated parliament.

But analysts said still-strong public support for Morsi and the Brotherhood's proven ability to mobilise at grassroots level would likely help the draft constitution be adopted.

If that happens, warned Eric Trager, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, it would "set up the country for prolonged instability".

(FRANCE24 with wires)

Date created : 2012-12-11

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