Seven people were killed and hundreds wounded last week in clashes between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and their critics besieging Mohamed Mursi's graffiti-daubed presidential palace. Both sides planned mass rallies yesterday. The elite Republican Guard has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the palace, which it ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades after last week's violence. Mursi, bruised by calls for his downfall, has rescinded a November 22 decree giving him wide powers but is going ahead with a referendum on Saturday on a constitution seen by his supporters as a triumph for democracy and by many liberals as a betrayal. A decree issued by Mursi late on Sunday gives the armed forces the power to arrest civilians and refer them to prosecutors until the announcement of the results of the referendum, which the protesters want cancelled. Despite its limited nature, the edict will revive memories of Hosni Mubarak's emergency law, also introduced as a temporary expedient, under which military or state security courts tried thousands of political dissidents and Islamist militants.
But a military source stressed that the measure introduced by a civilian government would have a short shelf-life."The latest law giving the armed forces the right to arrest anyone involved in illegal actions such as burning buildings or damaging public sites is to ensure security during the referendum only," the military source said.
Presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali said the committee overseeing the vote had requested the army's assistance."The armed forces will work within a legal framework to secure the referendum and will return (to barracks) as soon as the referendum is over," Ali said.Protests and violence have racked Egypt since Mursi decreed himself extraordinary powers he said were needed to speed up a troubled transition since Mubarak's fall 22 months ago.The Muslim Brotherhood has voiced anger at the Interior Ministry's failure to prevent protesters setting fire to its headquarters in Cairo and 28 of its offices elsewhere.
Critics say the draft law puts Egypt in a religious straitjacket. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the crisis has polarised the country and presages more instability at a time when Mursi is trying to steady a fragile economy. (Reuters)