CAIRO // President Mohammed Morsi failed to draw opposition forces to a national dialogue yesterday, indicating the deadlock between his supporters and a broad coalition of opponents is unlikely to end soon.
Prime minister Hisham Qandil last night announced the president would "soon" issue a revised constitutional declaration, but gave no other details. If Mr Morsi backtracks from the sweeping powers he gave himself in his previous declaration on November 22, it would represent his biggest concession yet to opposition forces protesting for a fourth straight day yesterday.
A military spokesman warned Egypt was entering a “dark tunnel with disastrous consequences” if the two sides could not reach agreement over a constitutional vote on December 15 and a presidential decree placing Mr Morsi beyond judicial oversight.
Any solution to the crisis must abide by “legitimacy and the rules of democracy”, the spokesman said.
Seven people have been killed and hundreds injured in clashes since Wednesday.
Mr Morsi was also preparing legislation that amounted to martial law. The military would be given powers to arrest civilians to keep the order, a report in the state-run Al Ahram newspaper said.
The new laws and walls built outside the palace by the Republican Guard might suggest Mr Morsi is digging in for a longer-term battle over the country’s transition.
Only political groups sympathetic to Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he resigned as a senior official before his inauguration in June, and a few liberal figures attended the session.
The decision by Ayman Nour, head of the liberal Al Ghad Al Thawra party and a veteran of the opposition to Hosni Mubarak’s regime, to attend could split the group in two, said Bahaa Mohammed, a party member.
“Ayman Nour made the decision to go the dialogue without consulting many people in the party,” Mr Mohammed said.
“Many of us are strongly opposed to the decision because we can’t sit down with the president after all the blood that has been lost because of his decisions.
“Lots of people are resigning.”
Emotions at the national dialogue session ran high, as about 40 people debated how to resolve the political crisis, said Magdi Salem, an Islamist lawyer who attended.
“The problem is the opposition wants Morsi out, no matter what, and what that means is that they want to prevent the Islamist project from coming,” said Mr Salem, who often works as an intermediary between the president and conservative Islamist groups. “They have no interest in negotiations … it makes me very worried for Egypt’s future,” he said
The members of the session agreed that the best course of action was for representatives of all political parties and groups to come together to discuss amendments to the constitution.
Whatever agreement was hashed out at such a meeting would be signed into effect by the new parliament, regardless of the political make-up of the new legislature.
Mr Salem said the Salafist bloc he was associated with was also unhappy with the constitution and Mr Morsi’s decree, but disagreed with using street protests to force the president to backtrack.
Opposition groups led by the National Salvation Front, an umbrella organisation opposing Mr Morsi’s actions, said they would continue a sit-in in front of the palace until their demands were met. Emad Gad, a member of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said on Friday that the Front was considering a “national strike” as a next course of action to force the president to yield on their demands.
Top Brotherhood officials defended the president’s actions yesterday, saying he was acting in the spirit of his democratic mandate to preserve the ideals of last year’s uprising against Mubarak. Protesters against Mr Morsi have rejected those arguments over the last several weeks, calling him a “new pharaoh” and demanding his resignation.
A group of 13 Islamist parties said they “insist that the referendum on the constitution take place on the scheduled date, with no modification or delay”, said Khairat Al Shater, a top financier and one-time presidential candidate for the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party.
“We are prepared to protect legitimacy. We and the Copts are partners in the nation and will not be dragged into sectarian strife,” Mr Al Shater said, referencing Coptic Christians who make up about 10 per cent of the country’s 83 million people.
He also spoke of “meetings by internal, regional and international parties to steal Egyptian revolution”.
He was echoing the defiant speech by Mr Morsi on Thursday night alleging a conspiracy to derail Egypt’s democratic transition through “terrorism” and violent protests.
Mr Morsi has given only partial concessions to the opposition movement in the latest escalation of protests.
On Friday, an order was given to delay voting by expatriates in embassies from yesterday to Wednesday to allow the national dialogue to take place.
Egypt’s vice president, Ahmed Mekki, told state television on Friday night that Mr Morsi would only consider delaying a vote on the constitution if opposition groups attended the national dialogue with “no preconditions”.
The political crisis is rooted in the democratic transition road map imposed by the military after Mubarak resigned on February 11 last year, which put parliamentary elections before the writing of a new constitution.
The highly organised Freedom and Justice Party and other Islamist groups, won more than 70 per cent of the seats in the first parliament and later dominated the selection of members for the committee that drafted a new constitution.
Liberals and secular groups performed poorly in the elections.
But the supreme constitutional court dissolved the parliament, deeming part of the elections unconstitutional and throwing the political system into disarray.
Soon after, Mr Morsi won the presidential election with 51.7 per cent of the vote in June, beginning a period of relative calm.
But when he issued a declaration on November 22 that gave him powers that could not be challenged by the courts, it galvanised the loosely knit opposition against his regime.
Mr Morsi argued his declaration was a necessary move to prevent the courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly as part of what he claims was a conspiracy in the judiciary against Islamists. Protesters were further enraged when the constitutional draft was rushed through a week later, despite a walkout by more than 20 of the 100 members.
* With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse