Islamists to rally behind Mursi as Egypt's rifts widen

Islamists planned rallies across Egypt on Saturday in support of President Mohamed Mursi, who has rushed through a constitution to try to quench opposition fury over his newly expanded powers. Mursi was due to ratify the constitution, hastily approved by an Islamist-dominated drafting assembly on Friday, later in the day and to set a date for a referendum on it within 15 days. Tens of thousands of Egyptians protested against Mursi on Friday and rival demonstrators threw stones after dark in Alexandria and the Nile Delta town of Al-Mahalla Al-Kobra.

"The people want to bring down the regime," they chanted in Cairo's Tahrir Square, echoing the slogan that rang out there less than two years ago and brought down Hosni Mubarak. Mursi plunged Egypt into a new crisis last week when he gave himself unlimited powers and put his decisions beyond judicial challenge, saying this was a temporary measure to speed Egypt's democratic transition until the new constitution is in place.

His assertion of authority in a decree issued on Nov. 22, a day after he won world praise for brokering a Gaza truce between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement, dismayed his opponents and widened divisions among Egypt's 83 million people. Two people have been killed and hundreds wounded in protests by disparate opposition forces drawn together and re-energised by a decree they see as a dictatorial power grab. Mursi has also antagonised many of the judges who must by law supervise the referendum. His decree nullified the ability of the courts, many of them staffed by Mubarak-era appointees, to countermand his measures, even though he has promised to uphold the independence of the judiciary.

Yet Mursi's gambit has placed his liberal, leftist, Christian and other opponents in a bind. If they manage to block the constitution in the referendum, the president would presumably retain the powers he has unilaterally assumed. Egypt's quest to replace the basic law that underpinned Mubarak's 30 years of army-backed one-man rule would also return to square one, creating more uncertainty in a nation in dire economic straits and seeking a $4.8 billion loan from the IMF.

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