CAIRO // Egypt's Islamist president said yesterday that the opposition should work with the government and warned that the focus should be on production and work as the country's economy teeters.
Mohammed Morsi, in his first address before the newly convened upper house of parliament, insisted that the new constitution guaranteed equality.
Since the constitution's acceptance in a two-stage referendum this month following weeks of often violent protests, Mr Morsi's government has sought to downplay fears.
He pressed the opposition to drop its refusals to deal with his government, repeating his invitation for it to join a national dialogue he has been holding.
Mr Morsi added a warning that appeared directed at the opposition not to turn to protests that might cause further unrest.
All sides must "realise the needs of the moment" and work only through "mature democracy while avoiding violence", he told the 270-member Shura Council. "We condemn and reject all forms of violence by individuals, groups, institutions and even from the nation and its government. This is completely rejected."
Ahmed Maher, head of the activist April 6 Movement that helped engineer last year's uprising against Hosni Mubarak, said Mr Morsi's speech offered nothing new beyond his acknowledgement of Egypt's economic woes. He also said he would not enter into talks again with the president until the Islamists "give up some of their arrogance and stubbornness".
"I sat with the president four times before. There are never any clear results from the conversations," Mr Maher said.
Last month, the largely secular and liberal opposition launched a wave of protests against decrees by Mr Morsi grabbing new powers - since revoked - and against the draft constitution that his Islamist allies rammed through to finalisation and put to a referendum, completed a week ago. In response, Islamists also launched mass rallies, and the two sides erupted into violence several times. The worst violence came in clashes outside the presidential palace in Cairo that killed 10 people, and though it was sparked when Islamists attacked a sit-in, Mr Morsi's allies have depicted the opposition as to blame.
Opponents fear that Mr Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, are monopolising rule and that the new constitution will consecrate their power. The charter allows for a stronger implementation of Islamic law than in the past and provisions that could limit many civil rights and freedoms of minorities. The charter was passed by 64 per cent in the referendum, though turnout was only 33 per cent.
Under the new constitution, the upper house of parliament, which normally has few powers, is now serving as the lawmaking body until a new legislating lower house is chosen in national elections expected within a few months. The upper house, called the Shura Council, has an overwhelming Islamist majority, mainly from Mr Morsi's Brotherhood and the allied ultraconservative Salafis.
In his speech, Morsi repeatedly said it was time to return to "production" and "work". While he listed some new economic projects such as developing the Suez Canal area and Sinai, he did not give details on an overall economic programme, including how the government will tackle a crippling deficit or carry out expected changes in taxes or reductions of subsidies.
Mr Morsi acknowledged in his nearly hour-long speech the country's dwindling foreign currency reserves, which stood at around US$36 billion (Dh132bn) in 2010 before the uprising and now hover about $15bn, bolstered by large Qatari deposits.
His government has requested a $4.8bn loan from the International Monetary Fund to bridge the burgeoning budget deficit. But talks have been put off for the moment after the government this month backed off plans to raise taxes on a number of products, fearing a larger backlash amid the political protests. Potential cuts in subsidies on food and fuel and plans to raise taxes are major concerns in a country where about 40 per cent of the 85 million population live near or below the poverty line of surviving on $2 a day.
"The reason [for the lower ranking] is the lack of political stability in the recent past," Mr Morsi said.
He denounced those he said were spreading rumours that undermine the economy. "Those who talk about bankruptcy, they are the ones who are bankrupt. Egypt will never be bankrupt and will not kneel, God willing," he said to a round of applause.
In attendance at the session were leading national figures such as Egypt's new Coptic pope, Tawdros II, seated next to the country's top mainstream cleric, grand sheikh Ahmed Al Tayeb of Cairo's Al Azhar, Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse