Egyptians protest as assembly passes new constitution

Sat, Dec 1, 2012, 00:00

Tens of thousands of Egyptians protested against president Mohamed Morsi yesterday after an Islamist-led assembly raced through approval of a new constitution in a bid to end a crisis over the Islamist leader’s newly expanded powers.

“The people want to bring down the regime,” they chanted in Tahrir Square, echoing the chants that rang out less than two years ago and brought down Hosni Mubarak.

Mr Morsi said a decree halting court challenges to his decisions, which sparked eight days of protests and violence by Egyptians calling him a new dictator, was “for an exceptional stage” and aimed to speed up the democratic transition.

“It will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution,” he told state television while the constituent assembly was still voting on a draft, which the Islamists say reflects Egypt’s new freedoms. “There is no place for dictatorship.”

But the opposition cried foul. Liberals, leftists, Christians, more moderate Muslims and others had withdrawn from the assembly, saying their voices were not being heard. In the mosque where Mr Morsi said Friday prayers some opponents chanted “Morsi: void” before sympathisers surrounded him, journalists and a security source said.

Tens of thousands gathered across the country, filling Tahrir Square and hitting the streets in Alexandria and other cities, responding to opposition calls for a big turnout. Rival demonstrators clashed after dark in Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of al-Mahala al-Kobra, some hurling rocks in anger.

An opposition leaflet distributed on Tahrir urged protesters in Cairo to stay overnight before today’s rallies by Islamists; the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies said they would avoid the square during their demonstrations backing Mr Morsi.

The disparate opposition, which has struggled to compete with well-organised Islamists, has been reinvigorated by the crisis. Tens of thousands had also protested on Tuesday.

US perspective

But Islamists have a potent political machine and the United States has looked on warily at the rising power of a group it once kept at arm’s length now ruling a nation that has a peace treaty with Israel and is at the heart of the Arab Spring.

Protesters said they would push for a No vote in a constitutional referendum, which could happen as early as mid-December. If the new basic law were approved, it would cancel the president’s decree. “We fundamentally reject the referendum and constituent assembly because the assembly does not represent all sections of society,” said Sayed el-Erian (43), a member of a party set up by opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei. Mr ElBaradei said the constitution had “lost legitimacy” and called for ending the polarisation of Egypt.

The plebiscite is a gamble based on the Islamists’ belief they can mobilise voters again after winning every election since Mubarak was toppled in February 2011. – (Reuters)