Egypt's army assumes broader powers ahead of referendum

 

A decree issued by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi giving the military temporary authority to arrest civilians and protect "vital facilities of the state" took effect Monday, as a standoff continued over an upcoming referendum on a controversial draft constitution and more protests were called for Tuesday.

The military's authority will last until the results of the referendum, which is scheduled for Saturday, are announced.

Analysts said it was difficult to know exactly what the new decree might mean in the context of Egypt's ongoing political crisis, which has divided the nation's revolutionaries nearly two years after they ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak.

After a string of turbulent, confusing and at times violent days, Monday was relatively quiet in Cairo. There was no additional military presence in the streets beyond the tanks and soldiers around the presidential palace, which were deployed following deadly clashes last week..

"I don't know what to make of it," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East expert and professor at George Washington University. "When I read the text of the decree it looks like the military's job is to provide security during the voting process at a time when security has been compromised, when there is the possibility of disruption at the polls and clashes. But in Egypt, anytime you bring in the military, it has political overtones that set people on edge — for good reason."

Brown said it was unclear whether an article in the new decree granting the military "all the authorities of judicial officers" portended trials of civilians in military courts, which has been a deeply controversial matter during Egypt's fragile transition period.

What is clear is that the decree on the military comes at a delicate moment. Morsi's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood backers and his liberal, secular and non-Islamist opponents have both called for large demonstrations Tuesday, signaling the continued failure of the two sides to come to a compromise over Saturday's vote on the draft constitution.

So far, only Morsi has put concessions on the table, although his opponents have described them as tricks and half measures. Morsi on Sunday night rescinded the Nov. 22 decree that gave him such sweeping powers, but replaced it with one that still allows him to issue decrees immune from legal challenge. And Morsi decided to push ahead with the referendum on the draft constitution, even though his opposition deems the document illegitimate.

What course the opposition will take in opposing the referendum — either voting against it or boycotting the vote altogether — remains unclear. The opposition has offered much rage, but little in the way of concessions or a unified strategy.

"The National Salvation Front has decided not to recognize the upcoming referendum and the draft constitution, which it considers farcical," read a statement from the alliance of Egypt's most prominent opposition groups. The statement stopped short of using the word "boycott," but it said the Morsi-backed charter "does not reflect the hopes and aspirations of the Egyptian people following the January 25 Revolution" that ousted Mubarak.

The alliance said going forward with the vote could plunge the country into further chaos. But the warning — which came more than 20 hours after Morsi's revised decree, in contrast to more immediate responses the alliance often issues on Twitter — underscored the challenges facing Egypt's broad but disparate opposition with the vote less than a week away.

The anti-Morsi movement, which has brought together liberals, secularists, human rights activists and old-regime loyalists, has yet to reach a consensus on whether to vote against the referendum or boycott it altogether.

Even if they were clearly unified, the opposition would have a tough time overcoming the organization and street power of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood backers.

Some analysts said that calling for a boycott would be a wiser strategy since it would be consistent with opposition claims that the constitution-drafting process was flawed and unrepresentative. Calling for an outright "no" vote, they say, would put the opposition in the position of losing outright at the ballot box.

"I'm really confused by all of the politics in the country," said Hebatollah Adel, a doctor who joined opposition protesters outside the presidential palace Sunday night. "I'm waiting for the judiciary's opinion, waiting to see whether or not they will supervise the referendum. And I'm waiting to see what the National Salvation Front will say."

Indeed, a series of "constitutional declarations" issued during Egypt's tumultuous, nearly two-year-old transition — first by the military and later by the elected president — has created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the country, with ordinary Egyptians often expressing bewilderment over which laws and rules prevail and which don't.

Morsi followed his newest decree on Sunday with a new tax reform law, raising levies on income, property, and several commodities ahead of a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that his government is pursuing. Later in the evening, however, Morsi suspended the law. As per an earlier military decree, Morsi has retained the power to legislate in the absence of a functioning parliament, which was dissolved by a court order earlier this year.

Opposition leaders focused on their demands to cancel the referendum, even as some activists debated whether a "no" vote against the draft charter would prove more effective by forcing the reformation of the constitution-drafting assembly.

The number of protesters camped outside the presidential palace dwindled from tens of thousands on Saturday night to hundreds on Sunday. Those who remained reflected the divide over what to do next.

Only a handful of opposition members participated in a Saturday dialogue session at the palace; most boycotted it.

"All this, to me, is a failure," said Islam Hosni Hussein, a computer engineer. Hussein said he had camped outside the palace for days and was not planning to leave — regardless of a decree or a constitutional referendum.

"The only thing I want is what's hanging by that gate," he said, pointing to a banner draped nearby that read, "The people want to topple the regime."

It's a demand that has increasingly defined the protesters and animated Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood supporters, as the crisis has deepened mistrust between secularists and Islamists.

"We won't leave until Morsi leaves," Hussein said.

- - -

Washington Post special correspondents Ingy Hassieb and Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

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