CAIRO (AP) — More than 100,000 Islamists waved Egyptian flags and hoisted portraits of President Mohammed Morsi in rallies nationwide Saturday to support his efforts to rush through a new draft constitution despite widespread opposition by secular activists and some in the judiciary.
The demonstrations — the largest turnout of Morsi supporters since he came to office in June— were seen as a test of strength for Islamists seeking to counteract mass opposition protests denouncing the president’s decision to seize near absolute power and the fast-tracking of the draft charter by an Islamist-led assembly ahead of a Constitutional Court decision on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.
Morsi says he acted to prevent courts led by holdovers from Hosni Mubarak’s ousted regime from delaying a transition to democracy. But his decision last week to put himself above judicial oversight has plunged the country into turmoil and mobilized an increasingly cohesive opposition leadership of prominent liberal and secular politicians — a contrast to the leaderless youth uprising last year that toppled Mubarak.
The Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical Salafi groups organized Saturday’s protests a day after the opposition in a bid to avoid conflict and violence after days of street skirmishes between protesters from both sides.
“The people support the president’s decision!” chanted crowds outside Cairo University, where tens of thousands had gathered by midday. They held posters that read “Yes to stability” and “Yes to Islamic law.” Protests in other parts of Egypt were expected to also attract large crowds in the evening. The rallies were dubbed “Shariyya and Shariah,” Arabic for “legitimacy and Islamic law.”
Members of the assembly, who wrote the charter and approved it in a 16-hour long voting session it just after dawn Friday, were expected to hand to Morsi the final draft later Saturday. The president is then expected to set a date for a nationwide referendum on the document, possibly in mid-December.
Morsi’s spokesman Yasser Ali said the president’s meeting with the panel members will be televised. State TV also announced the president would speak later Saturday.
“There is no constitution that is 100 percent approved. It is a step in the direction of achieving national goals,” Ali said.
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.
The speeding of the constitutional draft through the assembly, despite a boycott by secular and Christians, was seen as an attempt to circumvent a legal challenge that threatened to dissolve the panel and delay the charter.
The assembly, which worked on the draft for months, has been marred by dispute, with liberal, secular and Christian members quitting in protest of what they call the Islamists’ hijacking of the process.
The constitutional court ruled in June to dissolve parliament’s Islamist-dominated lower chamber on grounds that the law governing the elections didn’t provide equal opportunities for candidates, and it was ruling on the constitutional assembly on Sunday.
It’s not clear, though, what the standing of the court’s ruling would be since Morsi granted himself near absolute powers last week that deemed his decisions above judicial oversight.
The Islamists point to the fact that Morsi was Egypt’s first freely elected president and argue that the liberals and activists do not represent the vast majority of Egyptians.
As protesters marched over a bridge leading to the gathering, they chanted: “The people want to implement God’s laws.” Others chanted: “Oh God, make Morsi victorious.”
Ashraf Metawli, a 32-year-old government employee from the Nile Delta province of el-Menoufia, said the majority of Egyptians are Muslims and its constitution should be an Islamist one.
“This is our belief. We picked the president for Islamic law, and our choice was democratic,” he said. “What Morsi is doing is to get rid of all that is corrupt.”
Ibrahim Galal, a 21-year student, said Tahrir protesters are mobilized largely by members of the old regime who are in opposition to Morsi.
“If it’s about numbers, we too can mobilize. Let the ballot box speak. Not everyone can speak for the people,” he said.
“Why are you afraid of the (ballot) box!” chanted crowds in the pro-Morsi rally Saturday.
Tens of thousands of Morsi supporters gathered in Cairo but stayed away from the central Tahrir Square, the birthplace of the anti-Mubarak revolution and the site of the opposition protests, drawing up to 200,000 people on Friday, vowing to bring down the draft constitution and demanding Morsi repeal his decrees. Some judges groups have announced strikes until the decrees are repealed.
In the northern Mediterranean city of Alexandria, hundreds of riot police were deployed to create a buffer between several thousand pro and anti-Morsi protesters, who had clashed Friday.
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.
“Our message to seculars and liberals… this is the real million-man protest,” said ultraconservative Salafi Nour Party leader Yasser Borhani to the crowd in Cairo atop an erected stage.
Later, another popular Salafi Sheik Mohammed Hassan told the crowd that the gathering is designed to protect the Islamic identity of the country and the constitution. “I say we only came here to be a testimony to our Islam and to defend our nation,” he said to chants of “God is Great.”
“We assure all Egyptians, even Christians, Islam is our religion, Egypt is our nation, and dialogue is our way,” he said.
The Brotherhood had originally said it would hold Saturday’s rally in Tahrir but changed the location to avoid confrontation. The group said it canceled 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.
The rival street demonstrations highlight the sharp divisions in Egypt nearly two years after the uprising that united and galvanized much of the country to oust Mubarak.
The Brotherhood and more conservative Islamists came out the biggest winners, securing nearly 75 percent of the seats in last winter’s parliamentary election before the body was dissolved by a court ruling. But liberals highlight the fact that Morsi, the Brotherhood’s candidate, won only 25 percent of votes in the first round of presidential elections. He went on to win the runoff by just over 50 percent, after a divisive race against a former regime figure.
The opposition is considering a number of options, including boycotting the referendum, an intensified street campaign of protests and civil disobedience. Some acknowledge that the opposition does not have enough time or reach to launch a campaign to encourage people to vote against the charter in time.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.