President Mohammed Mursi has ordered Egypt’s army from Monday to take on police powers – including the right to arrest civilians – in the run-up to a vote on a constitution that has triggered bloodshed.
The decree takes effect on the eve of mass rival protests on the referendum that is to be staged on Saturday, and follows street clashes that have left seven people dead and hundreds injured.
It orders the military to fully co-operate with police “to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum,” according to a copy of the decree obtained by reporters.
Army officers “all have powers of legal arrest,” it says.
The military, which ruled Egypt between former president Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February last year to Morsi’s election in June this year, has sought to remain neutral in the political crisis.
But it has warned it “will not allow” the situation to deteriorate, and urged both sides to dialogue.
Army tanks and troops have since Thursday deployed around Morsi’s presidential palace. But they have not confronted thousands of protesters who have gathered there every night.
The opposition, made up of secular, liberal, leftwing and Christian groups, has said it will escalate its protests to scupper the referendum.
It views the new constitution, largely drawn up by Morsi’s Islamist allies, as undermining human rights, the rights of women, religious minorities, and curtailing the independence of the judiciary.
Mursi has defiantly pushed on with the draft charter, seeing it as necessary to secure democratic reform in the wake of Mubarak’s 30-year autocratic rule.
Late Sunday, the main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, called for huge protests in Cairo to reject the December 15 constitutional referendum.
It said Mursi used near-absolute powers he had decreed himself last month to railroad through the draft constitution, and his revocation of those powers on the weekend came too late.
“We do not recognise the draft constitution because it does not represent the Egyptian people,” National Salvation Front spokesman Sameh Ashour told a news conference.
In recent days, the protesters have hardened their slogans, going beyond criticism of the decree and the referendum to demand Morsi’s ouster.
The Muslim Brotherhood, from which Mursi hails, shot back that Islamist movements would counter with their own big rallies in the capital in support of the referendum.
“We are calling for a demonstration on Tuesday, under the slogan ‘Yes to legitimacy’,” the Brotherhood’s spokesman, Mahmud Ghozlan, told reporters.
Morsi’s camp argues it is up to the people to accept or reject the draft constitution.
A group of senior judges on Monday said pro-Mursi Islamist protesters would have to lift a week-long sit-in on the constitutional court before they would consider overseeing the referendum.
If the charter is rejected, Mursi has promised to have a new one drawn up by 100 officials chosen directly by the public rather than appointed by the Islamist-dominated parliament.
But analysts said still-strong public support for Mursi and the Brotherhood’s proven ability to mobilise at grassroots level would likely help the draft constitution be adopted.
“The Muslim Brotherhood believes that it has majority support so it can win the constitutional referendum,” said Eric Trager, analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
If that happens, he warned, it would “set up the country for prolonged instability”.