Egypt's Morsi sets constitution referendum date

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has called for a Dec. 15 referendum on a disputed draft constitution, which has triggered mass protests around the country.

Dec. 15 set for vote

Hundreds of thousands have packed Tahrir Square in Cairo after president Mohammed Morsi granted himself sweeping powers. But today, other crowds gathered in his support. 2:40

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has called for a Dec. 15 referendum on a disputed draft constitution, which has triggered mass protests around the country.

Morsi spoke Saturday in a nationally televised speech to the Islamist-led panel that hurriedly approved the draft charter amid widening opposition from secular and Christian groups. 

He urged Egyptians to participate in the referendum and praised the role of the judiciary in observing past elections. He says the referendum will be a brick in Egypt's democratic experience.

Morsi does have his supporters. On Saturday, an estimated 100,000 people around Egypt come out to voice their approval of him.

Waving Egyptian flags and hoisting large pictures of the president, tens of thousands participated in a Saturday rally, organized by the Muslim Brotherhood, is seen as a test of strength for Islamists seeking to counteract large opposition protests held this past week.

Protester Ahmed Rasheed told CBC News that the revamped constitution is a "very fascist document."

"There is a lot of discrimination [especially] to atheists," he said on the phone from Cairo on Saturday.  "My wife has a problem with alot of the women's rights in this constitution."

Rasheed said he's upset that Morsi had promised a constitution that was "written by the people, that represents all the people, which is not the case."

The Islamists argue that the liberals, who are still labouring to create a cohesive opposition nearly two years after the uprising that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak, do not represent the vast majority of Egyptians.

The Brotherhood and harder-line Islamists won nearly 75 per cent of the seats in last winter's parliamentary election. But liberals highlight the fact that President Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Brotherhood's political party, won only 25 per cent of votes in the first round of presidential elections. He went on to win the runoff by just over 50 per cent, after a divisive race against a former regime figure.

Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly liberal and secular forces, took to the streets twice this week opposing Morsi's decrees to grant himself sweeping powers.

Protesters were demanding he repeal the decrees that neutralized the judiciary.

Morsi says he acted to prevent courts led by former regime holdovers from delaying a transition to democracy and dissolving the assembly that wrote the draft constitution.

"The people support the president's decision!" chanted crowds outside Cairo University, where more than 10,000 had gathered by midday. They held posters that read "Yes to stability" and "Yes to Islamic law".

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The president's spokesman, Yasser Ali said Morsi's actions are " a step in the direction of achieving national goals."

The draft was passed by an Islamist-led assembly early Friday and is expected to be presented to the president Saturday. He will then decide on a date for a nationwide referendum, possibly in mid-December.

Egypt's constitutional Court rules on Sunday whether to dissolve the assembly. Liberal, secular and Christian members had already quit the body in protest of what they call the Islamists' hijacking of the process.

Responding to questions about the expected ruling Sunday, Ali said Morsi's decrees giving his decision immunity from judicial review were issued after the court sessions were scheduled.

"At the end of the day, we will respect court rulings but we are sure that everyone will triumph to the national interests," he said, without elaborating.

Brotherhood rallies pro-Morsi camp

Near Cairo University, dozens of Brotherhood buses stood parked after transporting people from outside the capital to the rally.

Thousands others arrived on foot, chanting in support of Morsi as they marched. Among supporters of the rally, which also calls for Islamic law, are the Gamaa Islamaiyya — a fundamentalist group that fought an insurrection against the government in the 1990s — and the Salafi Nour Party, seen as more conservative than the Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood had originally said it would hold Saturday's rally in Tahrir Square, where the opposition has erected dozens of tents since Morsi issued his decrees last week, but changed their location to avoid confrontation.

The group said it cancelled its rally in the southern city of Luxor after clashes between rival camps broke out there Friday.

Clashes sparked by the two-week old crisis have left two dead and hundreds injured.