Confusion pervades Egypt's opposition after Morsi rescinds decree

 

Confusion and disarray pervaded the ranks of Egypt's opposition on Sunday night, a day after President Mohammed Morsi made a gesture toward compromise by rescinding the controversial decree that had granted him near-absolute power and plunged the country into political crisis.

Opposition leaders called for more protests after Morsi refused to cancel a referendum, scheduled for Saturday, on a contentious draft constitution that critics have deemed illegitimate.

The National Salvation Front, an alliance of prominent opposition figures, warned that a referendum held amid the political crisis, which is in its third week, could plunge the country into further chaos.

The timing of the alliance's response, which came more than 20 hours after Morsi replaced his decree with a modified version, underscored the challenges facing Egypt's broad but divided opposition movement.

The opposition has brought together liberals, secularists, human rights activists and old regime loyalists, but it has yet to reach a consensus on whether to vote against the draft charter or boycott the referendum. The indecision could undermine the ability of anti-Morsi groups to influence the vote.

It is also unclear to many whether the critical element of Morsi's Nov. 22 decree, which gave him the power to legislate without judicial oversight, has been substantially altered.

The new declaration, while voiding the old, contained an article that grants the president the right to make new decrees, free of oversight.

"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," she added.

A series of "constitutional declarations" issued over the course of the country's tumultuous and 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 decree declaration Sunday with new tax measures, raising taxes on income, property and several commodities as part of a reform plan to meet terms of a $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan that his government is pursuing.

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 this year.

"What does this play on words mean? We're still stuck up against the wall," Monella Eissa, a 47-year-old French-language teacher, said Sunday after learning of the latest decree from Morsi. "We want to stop the constitutional decree and stop the referendum."

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 had shrunk 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 had boycotted.

And as Morsi pressed forward on the referendum, rumors circulated Sunday that Egypt's judiciary — the president's greatest foe in last month's power grab — may yet supervise the vote.

The judges of the State Council, a judicial authority that rules on disputes between civilians and the authorities, planned to meet Monday to determine their final stance on the referendum.

The Supreme Judicial Council, the country's highest-ranking judicial authority, has already agreed to oversee the vote.

Morsi, meanwhile, issued a declaration in the official Gazette, in which his office publishes new laws, authorizing the military to protect government institutions ahead of the referendum and to carry out arrests, if necessary.

"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."

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

---

Stephanie McCrummen and Sharaf al-Hourani contributed to this report.

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