By John Davison
By John Davison
CAIRO, Dec 11, 2012 (AFP)
Protesters started to gather in Cairo on Tuesday for rival rallies for and against a divisive constitutional referendum proposed by Egypt’s Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi.
The competing demonstrations carried the risk of further violence, after street clashes last week between opposition and Islamist supporters left seven people dead and hundreds hurt.
Mursi has ordered the army to support police in keeping security during the protests and until results are given from the referendum, which is due to take place on Saturday.
A couple of hundred opposition protesters tried to break through metal crowd barriers set up alongside big concrete blocks as a security perimeter outside Mursi’s palace, AFP correspondents at the scene said.
But the hundreds of soldiers, and some riot police, kept the defensive line. Behind them were stationed tanks and armoured personnel carriers deployed since last week.
No violent incidents were seen but the demonstration, called by the opposition National Salvation Front determined to scupper the referendum, was expected to swell to tens of thousands later in the day.
A counter-demonstration in favour of the referendum was also to take place a mere two kilometres (one miles) away at the behest of the pro-Mursi Coalition of Islamist Forces. It, too, was expected to be tens of thousands strong.
The fresh protests “raise the spectre of ‘bloody Wednesday’,” the independent newspaper Al-Shuruq headlined, referring to last week’s deadly clashes.
The pro-government daily Al-Akhbar said: “My God, save Egypt”.
The opposition, made up of secular, leftwing and liberal groups, has vowed to scupper the referendum and the draft constitution, which was approved by an Islamist-leaning panel.
It sees the draft text as weakening human rights, the rights of women and religious minorities.
Late Monday, 23 Egyptian human rights groups issued a statement saying the draft constitution “opens the door to the establishment of a theocratic system similar to the Iranian ‘Velayat-e Faqih’ model,” or rule by a clerical supreme leader, they said.
The UN human rights chief and international rights groups have criticised the draft charter and the way it was rushed through.
Mursi’s supporters, though, argue that it is now up to Egypt’s voters to decide it in the referendum.
The United States, which gives billions of dollars to Egypt’s military, has called for the protests to remain peaceful.
“We also want to see the Egyptian government and security forces respecting that freedom of peaceful expression and assembly and to exercise restraint,” US State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
The army’s role in the crisis could prove decisive.
Thus far, it has sought to remain neutral.
On Monday, after a meeting with Mursi, Egypt’s defence minister and commander of the armed forces, General Abel-Fattah al-Sisi, called on army officers to exercise the “highest levels of self-restraint”.
He said the armed forces were determined to “carry out their role in protecting the nation and its stability regardless of pressures and challenges”.