Egyptian soldiers on a tank stand guard in front of the presidential palace… (Petr David Josek, Associated…)
CAIRO — Egypt's main opposition groups rejected President Mohamed Morsi's weekend move to ease political tensions as the country braced for fresh protests and the military was given authority to arrest civilians ahead of this week's referendum on an Islamist-drafted constitution.
Morsi early Sunday rescinded most of the decree he issued last month that gave him near absolute authority by declaring his office free from judicial oversight. At the same time, he rebuffed key opposition demands to delay a constitutional referendum set for Saturday and to order the writing of a new charter that protects civil rights against the influence of sharia, or Islamic law.
Holding a referendum now "risks pushing the country toward violent confrontation," said a statement from the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, which is led by Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and senior politicians. "We are against this process from start to finish."
Fearing clashes between Islamists and the predominantly secular opposition, Morsi has empowered the army to arrest civilians and protect public buildings through the referendum vote. The move comes months after the military, which had ruled the country under martial law for more than a year, handed power to Morsi amid widespread accusations that its tribunals and detention of civilians violated human rights.
Over the last two weeks, at least eight people have been killed and more than 700 injured in protests nationwide.
This country of 82 million people has been swept into a dangerous political drama defined by sharpening differences between Islamists and secularists, an economy in turmoil and the lingering frustration for many that Egypt is no better off nearly two years after the overthrow of longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
Morsi huddles with advisors, protesters camp in tents and the opposition senses the president has been shaken by a revived protest movement that has drawn tens of thousands into the streets. But Morsi appears determined — and probably has the votes — to pass a constitution that will edge the nation closer to a political Islam desired by his allies in the dominant Muslim Brotherhood.
"It has been our fate to be ruled by a terrorist group that the current Egyptian president ... hails from," said a statement from the Alliance of Revolutionary Forces. "He lost his legitimacy in several ways after he split the nation and forced Egypt to show the first signs of civil war. We are with the strong demands of the street, which calls for the fall of this traitorous regime."
Such fervor has united an often disparate opposition movement. But leading dissident figures remain split over whether to boycott the referendum or use the movement's newfound spirit to rally a "no" vote against the charter.
Both scenarios have risks: A boycott gives Morsi an easy victory, but if a "no" vote fails in a transparent poll, the opposition faces a blow to its momentum. That energy may already be fading. The numbers of protesters in Tahrir Square and marching to the presidential palace were noticeably fewer Sunday than in previous days.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has seen its offices around the country ransacked and firebombed, said in a statement that Morsi's rescinded decree means "there is now no excuse for mass mobilization.... This will reveal who cares about the country's interest and who serves particular agendas and personal interests."
If the referendum is defeated, a new constituent assembly will be formed to draft a new charter.
The current crisis began Nov. 22, when Morsi — fearing the nation's highest court would dissolve the current Islamist-led assembly — expanded his powers to shield the assembly from judicial oversight. Morsi said the action was needed to advance the country's political transition and open the way for parliamentary elections. But critics have called him a dictator and pharaoh intent on advancing the Muslim Brotherhood's Islamist agenda.
There is a possibility that the Supreme Constitutional Court could rule against the legitimacy of a new constitution. Before Morsi's decree, the court was deciding whether to dissolve the constitutional assembly, which had been accused of not representing all Egyptians. But Morsi still wields sweeping executive and legislative powers, and it is unclear how much authority, if any, the courts will have since he has reversed his decree.
The opposition has called for strikes and nationwide rallies Tuesday.
"Protests and partial strikes will eventually lead to a general strike until the demands are met, but it takes time to organize and mobilize," said Karima Hefnawi, a member of the National Salvation Front.
Special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.