Morsi vows to go ahead with constitutional referendum, says he won’t tolerate overthrow

In first speech since violent protests began in Cairo, Islamist president says he’s unwilling to give up his sweeping powers

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi delivers a televised statement in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, December 6, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Nile TV)
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi delivers a televised statement in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, December 6, 2012. (photo credit: AP/Nile TV)

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addressed the country for the first time since mass protests began earlier this week, defiantly standing his ground on the issue of the draft constitution, the upcoming national referendum, and his immunity from oversight.

Morsi said in a televised speech that if the controversial constitutional draft is rejected by the Egyptian people in the December 15 referendum, he will form a new constituent assembly to draft a new version of the constitution.

Yet Morsi also angrily accused some of the opposition protesters of serving remnants of the old regime and vowed never to tolerate anyone working for the overthrow of his “legitimate” government..

The Islamist president added that he supported the people’s right to peaceful protest, but pointed the finger at “those who brought arms and hired thugs to wreak havoc,” adding they “must be punished.”

“We respect peaceful freedom of speech but will never allow anyone to take part in killings and sabotage.”

Seven people were killed in violent protests in the past two days in Cairo against the draft constitution, which is seen as giving a heavy nod to Islamist interests, and what critics say is a power grab by Morsi.

Morsi said that the controversial decrees he issued last month granting him immunity from legal oversight are non-negotiable, but invited the opposition to a “comprehensive and productive” dialogue starting Saturday at his presidential palace. He offered no sign at all that he might offer them any meaningful concessions.

The opposition has already stated that it would not enter a dialogue with Morsi unless he first rescinds decrees giving him nearly unrestricted powers and shelves the constitution draft hurriedly adopted by his Islamist allies.

Egyptian affairs pundit Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi tweeted that Morsi’s speech had a simple bottom line:

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Earlier in the day, the Egyptian army sealed off the presidential palace with tanks and barbed wire, a day after fierce clashes between supporters and opponents of the Islamist leader over a disputed constitution killed at least seven people.

Compounding Morsi’s woes, another member of his 17-person advisory panel resigned in protest of his handling of the crisis, bringing the total to seven in the past two weeks. Rafik Habib, the only Coptic Christian adviser, was the latest to resign.

Protesters defied a deadline to vacate the area, demanding that Morsi rescind his Nov. 22 decrees giving himself near-absolute power and withdraw the disputed draft constitution passed by his Islamist allies that is headed for a Dec. 15 referendum. But the situation was calm throughout the day.

Thousands of Morsi supporters camped overnight outside the palace after driving away opposition activists who had been staging a sit-in there, prompting the wild street battles that spread to upscale residential areas nearby. The Brotherhood, which had erected metal barricades and manned checkpoints with rocks and empty glass bottles overnight, withdrew from the area by afternoon.

“I don’t want Morsi to back down,” said Khaled Omar, a Brotherhood supporter who had camped out. “We are not defending him. We are defending Islam, which is what people want.”

The violence on Wednesday was the worst since Morsi was elected in June.

The crisis began with Morsi’s decrees setting himself above judicial oversight. That was followed by the hurried passing of a constitution draft by his Islamist allies, moves that deeply polarized the country and took political tensions to a height not seen since the uprising nearly two years ago that ousted authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

Morsi remains determined to press forward with the Dec. 15 referendum to pass the new charter. The opposition, for its part, is refusing dialogue unless Morsi rescinds the decrees and shelves the disputed charter.

The intensity of the overnight violence, with Morsi’s Islamist backers and largely secular protesters lobbing firebombs and rocks at each other, raised the specter that the country would grow even more polarized and violent.

Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader, said late Wednesday that Morsi’s rule was “no different” than Mubarak’s.

“In fact, it is perhaps even worse,” the Nobel Peace Prize laureate told a news conference after he accused the president’s supporters of a “vicious and deliberate” attack on peaceful demonstrators outside the palace.

Morsi’s moves over the constitution have re-energized and largely unified the previously fractious opposition.

Inside the palace gates, Morsi held crisis meetings Thursday with Cabinet members and military leaders, including the defense minister, according to a presidential statement.

“The president discussed ways to deal with the situation regarding the political, security and legal landscapes so that Egypt can achieve stability and preserve the gains of the revolution,” the statement said.

The renewed violence sent Egypt’s main stock market index down 4.6 percent. The loss was about 10.4 billion Egyptian pounds (around $1.7 billion). Persistent capital outflows since last year’s uprising have forced the central bank to burn through its foreign currency reserves to support the Egyptian pound. The Central Bank of Egypt released figures Thursday that show foreign reserves at the end of November stood at just $15 billion, nearly half of what they were 19 months ago.

The army’s Republican Guard, an elite unit assigned to protect the president and his palaces, surrounded the complex and gave protesters on both sides until 3 p.m. (1300 GMT, 8 a.m. EDT) to clear the vicinity, according to an official statement. The statement also announced a ban on protests outside any of the nation’s presidential palaces.

Six tanks and two armored vehicles belonging to the Republican Guard were stationed at roads leading to the palace in the upscale Cairo district of Heliopolis. The guard’s commander, Maj. Gen. Mohammed Zaki, sought to assure Egyptians that his forces were not taking sides.

“They will not be a tool to crush protesters and no force will be used against Egyptians,” he said in comments carried by the official MENA news agency.

Several dozen anti-Morsi protesters continued to demonstrate across the street from the palace past the military’s afternoon deadline, chanting slogans against the president. Thousands marched through Cairo toward the palace and joined the protest Thursday evening.

“We raise Egypt’s flag but they raise the Brotherhood flag. This is the difference,” protester Magdi Farag said as he held the tri-colored national flag stained with blood from his friend’s injury in clashes the night before.

“We will not leave until he leaves,” Farag said about the president.

Brotherhood supporters outside the palace accused opposition protesters of being Mubarak loyalists or foot soldiers in a coup attempt.

“They want to take over power in a coup. They are conspiring against Morsi and we want him to crack down on them,” said one, Ezzedin Khoudir. “There must be arrests.”

Outside the president’s house in his hometown of Zagazig, about 80 kilometers (50miles) north of Cairo, police fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of protesters who had gathered, security officials said.

Egypt has seen sporadic clashes throughout nearly two years of political turmoil after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011. But this was by far the worst violence between segments of the public.

The violence began when the Brotherhood called on its members to head to the presidential palace to stand up against what a statement termed as attempts by the opposition to impose its will. The group called on their supporters to “protect legitimacy after an infringement by a group the night before that imagined it could shake legitimacy or force its will on people.”

Thousands of Brotherhood members and other Islamists then descended on the area Wednesday afternoon, chasing away some 300 opposition protesters who had been staging a peaceful sit-in outside the palace’s main gate a day after tens of thousands converged outside the palace to denounce the president.

Clashes later ensued, with the two sides using rocks, sticks and firebombs. Riot police were deployed to intervene.

The Muslim Brotherhood were chanting “as if they are in a holy war against the infidels,” businessman Magdi Ashri said of the clashes. Protesting outside the palace again Thursday evening, Ashri said that he was once a supporter of the president, but after last night has changed his position.

The Brotherhood also said three of its offices outside Cairo were torched by protesters Wednesday.

Unlike Mubarak, Morsi was elected in June after a narrow victory in Egypt’s first free presidential elections. But many activists who supported him have jumped to the opposition after his Nov. 22 decrees and the rushed constitution drafted by his Islamist allies despite a walkout by minority Christian and liberal factions.

The Health Ministry said six people were killed and 644 injured by beatings, gunshot wounds and tear gas inhalation. The Brotherhood said all those killed were their supporters, but the claim could not be immediately verified.

A journalist for the independent daily Al-Fagr newspaper was in critical condition after being shot in the head with a rubber bullet, according to a staff member who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in exchange for releasing the information ahead of a formal announcement. The newspaper said it did not know who fired the rubber bullet.

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