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Egypt panel recommends referendum be held on time

Published December 8, 2012 5:18 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Cairo • Members of a presidential national dialogue committee recommended Saturday that a referendum on a disputed constitution be held on schedule but that the president rescinds some powers he had given himself.

The statement came after a meeting that was boycotted by the main opposition leaders who had protested the referendum. It did not suggest that President Mohammed Morsi meet demands for the Dec. 15 vote to be canceled.

Opposition protesters are holding a sit-in outside the presidential palace and are calling for more protests on Sunday.

Selim al-Awa, an Islamist at the meeting, said the committee found it would be a violation of earlier decisions to change the date of the referendum.

However, the committee recommended removing articles that granted Morsi powers to declare emergency laws and shield him from judicial oversight. Panel members said Morsi had approved the recommendations.

The decision is unlikely to appease the opposition since it recommends the referendum go ahead as scheduled. Morsi's initial declaration was to be rendered ineffective anyway after the constitution is approved.

Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer, said the recommendations to rescind some powers were a "play on words" since Morsi had already achieved the desired aim of finalizing the draft constitution and protecting it over the past weeks from a judicial challenge.

Bassem Sabry, a writer and activist, said the changes to the declaration were a "stunt" that would embarrass the opposition but not resolve the problem.

"In the end, Morsi got everything he wanted," he said.

"He protected the constituent assembly, the draft constitution and rammed into a referendum when people will have no time to study it against what he had promised before, which is that the document won't be put into a referendum without sufficient national consensus," Sabry said.

The majority of the 54 members of the committee were Islamists and members of the constitutional panel that drafted the disputed charter. But the main opponents were not present at the meeting, which lasted over 10 hours.

The deepening political rift in Egypt had triggered an earlier warning Saturday from the military of "disastrous consequences" if the constitutional crisis isn't resolved through dialogue.

It was the first political statement by the military since the newly elected Morsi sidelined it from political life.

The army said serious dialogue is the "best and only" way to overcome the conflict, which has left the country deeply divided between Islamist supporters of the president and his mostly secular opponents.

"Anything other than (dialogue) will force us into a dark tunnel with disastrous consequences, something which we won't allow," the military said in a statement broadcast on state TV and attributed to an unnamed military official.

The new recommendations by the panel also suggest that if the referendum is not passed, Morsi will call for the election of a new drafting committee within three months, a prospect that would prolong the transition.

Such a provision also would likely make it harder for the opposition to market a "no" vote in the referendum. Opponents say the draft constitution disregards the rights of women and Christians, and enshrines a central role for Islamic law.