Egypt divided as Morsi sets date for referendum
Supporters from both sides take to streets as president announces vote on draft constitution
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called yesterday for a referendum in two weeks on a disputed draft constitution, as tens of thousands of his supporters celebrated the decision.
Mr Morsi set the date as December 15 in a nationally televised speech to the Islamist-led assembly that hurriedly approved the draft charter amid widening opposition from secular and Christian groups.
Egypt's Constitutional Court was due to rule today on whether to dissolve the panel. If the judges decide to hold their session, whatever the decision, it is still a challenge and a continuation of the tug of war between Morsi and the powerful judiciary, which dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament earlier this year.
"After receiving this draft constitution, and out of keenness to build the nation's institutions without delay or stalling, I will issue today the call for a public referendum on this draft charter on Saturday, December 15," Mr Morsi said. "I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt."
Mr Morsi urged those who opposed it to go out and vote. "With us all we build the nation," he said.
As he announced the date, more than 100,000 of his supporters danced and chanted in celebration as they gathered in one of Cairo's squares in support of efforts to rush through the draft charter.
The demonstrations – the largest turnout of Morsi supporters since he came to office in June – were seen as a show of strength for Islamists seeking to counter mass opposition protests held over the past week denouncing the president's decision to seize near absolute power and the fast-tracking of the draft charter ahead of a Constitutional Court decision today on whether to dissolve the panel.
Across the river, a few thousand of Mr Morsi's opponents rallying in Cairo's Tahrir Square raised their shoes to show contempt for the announcement.
The referendum date placed the next move in the standoff in the hands of the Constitutional Court. It was not clear what a decision to disband the constitutional assembly would have now that the charter has been drafted and a date set for the vote.
Judges, still smarting from Mr Morsi's earlier decrees giving himself and the constitutional assembly immunity from judicial oversight, have threatened to boycott observing the referendum.
In his speech, Mr Morsi appealed to the judges to carry out their duties, praising their national roles and adding that the state will not challenge their decisions or powers.
Mr Morsi called for a national dialogue to discuss the "concerns" of the nation.
Opponents of his decision and the charter had held massive rallies over the last week, and several hundreds are holding a sit-in in Tahrir, the epicentre of the uprising that forced former president, Hosni Mubarak, to step down last year. They had conditioned their participation in a national dialogue on Mr Morsi rescinding his decrees, which they said gave him near- dictatorial powers.
In an immediate reaction to the referendum date, prominent democracy advocate Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who is a member of a coalition of opposition leaders, said on his Twitter account that Mr Morsi put to a referendum a constitution that "undermines basic freedoms and violates universal rights. The struggle continues".
The opposition announced plans for an intensified street campaign of protests and civil disobedience and even a possible march on Mr Morsi's presidential palace to prevent him from holding a nationwide referendum on the draft. It is not clear whether the opposition can rally enough voters to shoot down the constitution in a referendum or organise a boycott campaign.