Egyptians protest against disputed constitution

CAIRO (AP) — Several hundred Egyptians marched toward the presidential palace in Cairo on Sunday to protest the president’s decision to keep on schedule the referendum on a disputed draft constitution set for next week.

The protests were noticeably smaller than other rallies during the past week, possibly reflecting the opposition’s bind in the face of the partial concession by President Mohammed Morsi, who agreed to annul his Nov. 22 decrees that gave him near-unrestricted powers and immunity from judicial oversight.

Despite scrapping the earlier decree, Mr. Morsi stuck to the Dec. 15 referendum on a constitution hurriedly adopted by his Islamist allies during an all-night session late last month.

“This has confused many, who opted to stay home,” said Tarek Shalaby, a protester and member of the leftist Revolutionary Socialist group, as he marched toward the palace, “but we should continue our pressure. We can’t lose our momentum.”

Mr. Shalaby said he has still not decided whether he will vote no or boycott the referendum.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

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Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo) more >

The opposition National Salvation Front called on supporters to rally against the referendum. The group is holding a late-night meeting Sunday to decide on the next move.

The opposition said Mr. Morsi’s rescinding of his decrees was an empty gesture because the decrees already had achieved their main aim of ensuring the adoption of the draft constitution. The edicts had barred the courts from dissolving the Constituent Assembly that passed the charter and further neutered the judiciary by making Mr. Morsi immune from its oversight.

Still, the lifting of the decrees could persuade many judges to drop their two-week strike to protest what their leaders called Mr. Morsi’s assault on the judiciary. An end to their strike means they would oversee the referendum, as is customary in Egypt.

In his late-night announcement, Mr. Morsi replaced the scrapped decrees with a new one that doesn’t give him unrestricted powers but allows him to give voters an option if they decide to vote “no” on the disputed draft charter.

In the new decree, if the constitution is rejected, Mr. Morsi would call for new elections to select 100-member panel to write a new charter within three months. The new panel would then have up to six months to complete its task, and the president would call for a new referendum with a month.

The process adds about 10 more months to Egypt’s raucous transition but could answer some of the opposition demands of a more representative panel to write the charter, if the elections are not swept by Islamists.

If the referendum goes ahead, the opposition faces a new challenge — either to campaign for a “no” vote or to boycott the process altogether. A low turnout or the charter passing by a small margin of victory would cast doubts on the constitution’s legitimacy.

The decrees initially sparked the wave of protests against Mr. Morsi that have brought tens of thousands into the streets in past weeks. But the rushed passage of the constitution further inflamed those who claim Mr. Morsi and his Islamist allies, including the Muslim Brotherhood, are monopolizing power in Egypt and trying to force their agenda.

The draft charter was adopted amid a boycott by liberal and Christian members of the Constituent Assembly. The document would open the door to Egypt’s most extensive implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah, enshrining a say for Muslim clerics in legislation, making civil rights subordinate to Shariah and broadly allowing the state to protect “ethics and morals.” It fails to outlaw gender discrimination and mainly refers to women in relation to home and family.

Sunday’s rallies were the latest of a series by opponents and supporters of Mr. Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood.

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