- - Sunday, December 9, 2012

CAIRO — Egypt is bracing for more political tension this week, as supporters and opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi plan for massive demonstrations Tuesday and a weekend deadline looms for a vote on a draft constitution that has split the country into hostile camps.

“We do not recognize the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people,” Sameh Ashour, a spokesman for the opposition National Salvation Front, said Sunday.

The referendum “will certainly lead to more division and sedition,” he added, reading a statement from the opposition.

Later Sunday, the Alliance of Islamist Forces announced a campaign to support the constitution and called for demonstrations on the same day as the opposition.

Egypt is in the grip of the worst and deadliest political violence since the overthrow of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

Thousands of supporters and opponents of Mr. Morsi have clashed in the streets of Cairo and other cities since the president on Nov. 22 gave himself sweeping powers that put him above the country’s judiciary.

The protests deepened after a constitutional committee composed of Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters passed the charter, which is set for a referendum Saturday.

He canceled the presidential decrees over the weekend, prompting smaller anti-Morsi demonstrations Sunday. The opposition is now targeting the Saturday referendum on the draft constitution.

The opposition says the measure would restrict civil rights and negate the goals of the revolt that overthrew Mubarak.

“The timing and the way this constitution was [created] makes one doubt his intentions,” said Mohammed Abdel-Hameed, a 28-year-old opposition member. “I read the controversial articles thoroughly. Those articles shouldn’t be in the postrevolution constitution.

“If Morsi continued to be that stubborn, and if he can’t end this crisis, he will eventually be toppled and the army will rule us again,” he said.

The Egyptian military spoke up Saturday for the first time since the protests erupted.

“Anything other than dialogue [between both sides] will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences, something which we won’t allow,” the military said in a statement.

On Sunday, Mr. Morsi ordered the military to maintain security and protect state institutions until after the referendum. He also authorized soldiers to arrest civilians if they interfere with the voting.

Fighting on Cairo’s streets last week was some of the worst since Mubarak was ousted.

Tens of thousands of Islamists protested in a show of support for Mr. Morsi, while opponents encircled the presidential palace in Cairo and ransacked Muslim Brotherhood offices across the country. At least six people were killed and hundreds injured in melees that included firebombs and tear gas.

The military has moved in to keep peace at the presidential palace. With more protests looming in the run-up to the referendum, the army has sealed off the palace area with tanks and concrete blocks.

The protests Sunday were smaller after Mr. Morsi rescinded decrees that would have expanded his powers and shielded his office, the constitutional committee and the upper house of parliament from all oversight including judicial rulings.

On Nov. 30, the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated constitutional committee rushed through a draft constitution without the participation of representatives of the secular opposition or Coptic Christians, who began boycotting the panel last month.

They accused the Islamists of forcing through a constitution that gave religious leaders the right to interpret the law and that failed to protect the rights of women or minorities or freedom of expression.

“The problem is not really the constitution, but that people are scared that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking over the country,” said Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo.

Islamists counter that Mr. Morsi, who took office in June as the first freely elected Egyptian president, is trying to move the country forward in its democratic political transition. They claim that judges, who disbanded the lower house of parliament earlier this year in a dispute over election law, are Mubarak supporters trying to stall the transition.

On Dec. 2, Mr. Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood supporters surrounded the Supreme Constitutional Court and prevented judges from entering the courthouse to rule on the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly.

The Supreme Constitutional Court judges joined other members of the judiciary who went on strike two weeks ago.

It remains unclear whether the judges, who are legislatively empowered to oversee elections, will monitor Saturday’s constitutional referendum.

The opposition must decide whether to boycott the referendum or organize a vote to defeat the measure.

Mr. Morsi has pledged to hold new elections for a constitutional assembly to draft another charter if the referendum fails. If that draft passes, Egyptians will vote in parliamentary elections within two months, he said.

Meanwhile, many Cairo residents just want reconciliation and are worried about more violence.

“What is happening now is so sad,” said Mahmoud Abdel-Haleem, 25, who works in a carpet shop in Cairo. “Morsi is not a bad man, but the remnants of the former regime who are still working in the government will bring him down.

“We should give Morsi time, but he must talk to those who oppose him and end this issue. If this continues, we might turn into another Syria.”

Jabeen Bhatti reported from Berlin.