by Ines Bel Aiba and Haitham El-Tabei
by Ines Bel Aiba and Haitham El-Tabei
CAIRO, Dec 9, 2012 (AFP)
Egypt’s main opposition parties were to meet late Sunday to decide whether to keep up street protests against President Mohamed Morsi after the Islamist leader made a key concession in the crisis dividing the nation.
Hundreds of people were gathering peacefully in front of the presidential palace in Cairo — the scene of violent clashes earlier this week that killed seven people and injured hundreds.
Whether their number would swell to the several thousands seen in previous nights of demonstrations rested with the opposition National Salvation Front coalition.
The bloc was mulling its next move after Morsi announced he had met one of their key demands: that he give up expanded powers he assumed in a decree last month giving him immunity from judicial oversight.
Morsi, speaking through an aide, said however he was maintaining that a December 15 referendum on a controversial new constitution drafted by a panel dominated by his Islamist allies would still be held.
The opposition had previously said it would sustain its protests until Morsi scrapped both the decree and the referendum.
Some opposition groups were already insisting Morsi’s decree concession did not go far enough.
The April 6 Youth Movement dismissed it as “a political manoeuvre aimed at duping the people,” and called for continued protests to stop “the referendum on the constitution of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Prominent opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei — a former UN atomic agency chief and a Nobel Peace laureate — tweeted that “a constitution that curtails our rights and freedoms is a constitution we will topple.”
Demonstrators furious at what they saw as a power grab by Morsi and the railroading of the draft constitution have held weeks of street rallies whose demands have escalated into calls for the president’s resignation.
On Wednesday, clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi demonstrators outside the presidential palace killed seven people and injured more than 600.
The army stepped in, deploying tanks and troops around the palace. Soldiers reinforced barricades on access roads early on Sunday, piling up concrete blocks three metres (10 feet) high, an AFP correspondent reported.
Air force F-16 warplanes also flew low over the city centre. The official MENA news agency described the unusually low flyover as an exercise against “hostile air attacks and to secure important state installations.”
On Saturday, the military issued its first statement since the crisis began, urging the rival camps to talk, warning that a dangerous deterioration was “something we will not allow.”
The possibility of talks calming the crisis following Morsi’s concession sent Egypt’s stock market 4.4 percent higher on Sunday, clawing back some of the heavy losses over the past week.
Prime Minister Hisham Qandil urged protesters from both sides to stop demonstrating, and to vote in Saturday’s referendum, MENA said.
Qandil noted that Morsi could not postpone the referendum even if he wanted to, as a president was constitutionally bound to hold plebiscites exactly two weeks after they are formally presented to him.
Opposition figures though denounce the draft charter as weakening protection of human rights and the rights of women and religious minorities.
Those criticisms were echoed last week by UN human rights chief Navi Pillay. “I believe people are right to be very concerned,” she said.
Analysts have said the referendum will probably see the draft constitution adopted, given still strong public support for Morsi and the Brotherhood’s organisational skills.
“The Muslim Brotherhood believes that it has majority support so it can win the constitutional referendum,” said Eric Trager, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If that happens, it would “set up the country for prolonged instability.”