Marc Burleigh, AFP
Last updated: 18 December, 2012

Egyptian Islamists challenged by new protests

Egypt’s opposition mustered only a low turnout for protests late Tuesday against a draft constitution backed by Islamist President Mohamed Morsi that looks likely to be adopted in a weekend referendum second round.

But analysts cautioned that adoption of the proposed charter would not heal the deep divisions gripping the Arab world’s most populous country.

Up to 2,000 people rallied outside the presidential palace and a few hundred more in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, AFP correspondents said. That was far fewer than joined previous anti-Morsi protests over the past three weeks, some of which drew tens of thousands of demonstrators.

The demonstrations came ahead of Saturday’s second round of voting in the referendum. In last weekend’s first round, held in half the country’s provinces, including the big cities of Cairo and Alexandria, 57 percent of voters backed the draft charter, according to unofficial tallies.

While that was less than Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood had been hoping for, the margin was expected to grow when more conservative, rural voters cast their ballots in the second round.

Some protesters on Tuesday said they would not accept the results of the referendum even if official results showed a majority backed the charter.

“We do not agree with this constitution. We don’t recognise the referendum as valid,” said one opposition protester near the palace, Ayyoub Laouindi.

“The constitution is void, the referendum is void. Egyptians’ voices have been falsified and the ballot boxes been stuffed,” said another, Suzanne Esmat, a tourist guide.

Morsi’s camp argues the new charter is needed to bring stability to Egypt after months of turmoil since the early 2011 ouster of veteran leader Hosni Mubarak.

But the opposition is scathing of the document, which was written largely by Islamists, believing it weakens human rights protections, particularly for women, and sets the stage for a creeping advance towards Islamic sharia law.

Divisions over Morsi’s rule and the draft constitution spilled over into vicious clashes between supporters and opponents of the president, with eight people killed and hundreds injured outside the palace on December 5.

The head of the military, Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, warned against the polarisation of the nation.

“The divisions are affecting the economy and threaten social peace, requiring of us solidarity, renouncing differences and putting public interests first,” Sissi was quoted as saying.

The justice ministry responded to the opposition’s fraud allegations by saying it was appointing judges to investigate.

Many of Egypt’s 21,000 judges were keeping up their pressure on Morsi, charging that he was trying to undermine their independence. More than half are refusing to supervise the second round of the referendum.

Hani Sabra, an analyst at Eurasia Group, said while the draft constitution would be adopted, the Muslim Brotherhood was “surprised and unsettled” at the low margin and the meagre 31-percent turnout in the first round of voting.

“This is likely to push the Brotherhood to take a less conciliatory approach to governing in the short term, as it will scramble to maintain its advantage,” he predicted.

“The referendum results will also fuel the confrontation between the Brotherhood and the non-Islamist opposition,” making it more difficult for Morsi to govern, Sabra said.

The uncertainty is already hurting Egypt’s economy, which is heavily dependent on foreign credit, investment and tourism.

The International Monetary Fund has put on hold a $4.8 billion loan, and Germany has postponed indefinitely a plan to forgive up to $316 million of Egyptian debt.

Egypt needs the IMF loan “to stave off an unmanaged currency devaluation, which could have a devastating effect on the economy,” Sabra said.