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Morsy reverses on decree

| Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, 8:38 p.m.

CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsy reversed course early Sunday, annulling most of a controversial decree that granted him sweeping authority and unleashed Egypt's worst unrest since last year's revolution.

A referendum on a controversial constitution remains scheduled for Dec. 15, however, officials announced at a news conference in Cairo.

Morsy rescinded his Nov. 22 decree claiming near-absolute power and placing himself beyond judicial review, according to a former adviser. He said a modified version would be issued to define presidential powers and that decisions made under the old decree would not be subject to judicial review.

Morsy has not yet confirmed the statement.

His power grab sent hundreds of thousands of protesters into streets to denounce him as a dictator. Withdrawing it has been a key demand of a growing opposition, along with postponing the referendum and redrafting the document.

Leaders of the opposition coalition had no immediate reaction.

On Saturday, many of them refused to attend a negotiating session called by Morsy; others walked out before it concluded.

Tarek Masoud, a Harvard University associate professor and Middle East specialist, said that if Morsy was trying “to calm the situation, this falls short. If his aim was to outflank his opponents, he has succeeded.”

More than two weeks of violence across the country have left more than 700 injured and a dozen dead, the presidential palace besieged by chanting crowds and defended by army tanks and troops.

As the national dialogue began, Morsy appeared to be preparing to grant the military broad powers to arrest civilians and keep public order until a new constitution is approved and parliamentary elections held, according to a report on Saturday in the state-run newspaper al-Ahram.

Morsy's cabinet approved the move, the newspaper said, and would require him to issue a new decree for it to take effect, which he had not done by late Saturday.

Many here are angered by Morsy's actions and equally worried that the proposed constitution — drafted by an Islamist-controlled assembly — will limit individual liberties and lead to Islamic rule.

Under the best circumstances, a nation in which 36 percent of adults are illiterate might find it difficult to fully comprehend the proposed constitution's 236 articles in just two weeks.

Morsy and the ruling Muslim Brotherhood insist his decree and the snap referendum involve the “legitimacy” of an elected president and of the ballot box.

So far, the United States — which considers Egypt a key ally and provides it with $1.5 billion in annual aid — has been cautious in its criticism of Morsy.

The opposition boldly insists it is trying to save Egypt's struggling democracy from a tyrant.

Some observers agree.

“A democratically elected president should still have checks on their power and should be subject to judicial oversight and the rule of law,” said Heba Morayef, a Cairo-based researcher for Human Rights Watch.

She described Morsy's actions as “a recipe for abuse … fundamentally dangerous.”

Journalist and Islamic scholar Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, whose family tree includes two former Brotherhood leaders, put it succinctly: “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

El-Houdaiby, who quit the Brotherhood years ago, recently wrote that the draft constitution “leaves the door wide open for repression and tyranny.” Among other concerns, he said, it allows civilians to be tried in “ambiguous” circumstances by military courts.

Rushing into a referendum, he said, will force Egyptians to choose either “a constitution that blends tyranny with incompletion” or a return to despotism.

Morayef has compiled a list of clauses that, she said, make the new document more repressive than the country's 1971 constitution. Freedom of speech and religion and women's rights are among her top concerns.

One article subjects all rights to a “broad, very vague earlier article that (says) the state shall protect the true nature of the Egyptian family and … maintain morality and ethics,” she said.

“It's an invitation to the abuse of the rights themselves.”

Another provision allows the state “to discriminate against women, if they deem her obligation to her family as a priority,” which could bar women from public office, she said.

Despite such concerns, the Brotherhood is pressing ahead with the referendum.

However, early voting by Egyptians abroad, set to begin on Saturday, was postponed because many diplomats refused to supervise it in the face of turmoil at home.

In a televised speech at the end of a week of growing bloodshed, Morsy said 40 of 129 arrested protesters had confessed to being paid to foment violence. A state prosecutor later freed all 129.

Nevertheless, Morsy's ominous remarks deepened the distrust of many here.

“I felt that Morsy was declaring war on Egyptians who are opposed to him,” said Wael Eskandar, a political activist and writer.

Morsy's “confessions and investigations” language reminded Eskandar of the ousted Mubarak regime's “fabricating evidence and going on witch-hunts.”

State-run media have reported that Morsy will issue another decree granting judicial and security powers to the military until a new constitution is enacted and parliamentary elections are held.

Eskandar expects “a wave of oppression and eliminating opponents” whenever Morsy feels politically strong enough.

“Morsy is giving the army the power to arrest in the absence of the police,” Eskandar said. “He is trying to make allies with certain security forces in order to implement that wave of oppression and silence the opposition.”

He also believes Morsy and the Brotherhood are engaged in a public relations campaign to sway American opinion, including U.S. visits by high-profile Brotherhood officials.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review'sforeign correspondent. Email her at The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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