x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Thousands march on Morsi's palace in referendum protest

Opposition group hopes rally will pressure president into concessions and amendments to the constitution, or discredit it altogether.

CAIRO // Thousands of protesters opposed to Egypt's draft constitution marched last night on the presidential palace and Tahrir Square.

Marchers alleging voting irregularities and breaches of electoral law in the first round of voting in a referendum chanted "down with Brotherhood rule" and "your constitution is void".

It was the first major protest since a preliminary vote count showed 56.5 per cent approved the constitution, increasing the likelihood that will be enacted after the second round on Saturday.

But the National Salvation Front opposition umbrella group hoped the rally would pressure Mohammed Morsi, the president, into concessions and amendments to the constitution, or discredit it altogether.

"The pressure they are exerting is showing Egyptians and the outside the world that thousands, maybe tens or hundreds of thousands, are against Mr Morsi and the constitution," said Mazen Hassan, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

"Even if the yes vote is winning by a small margin, they have managed to weaken the support for the president."

The NSF said this week that it had observed hundreds of electoral offences so far and the ministry of justice said yesterday it was assigning several judges to probe allegations of irregularities.

"This is the first time in the history of Egypt that judges are assigned to investigate vote violations," a ministry spokesman said.

The NSF is opposed to the constitution because it says the document does not go far enough in enshrining the rights of Egyptians and was the product of an Islamist dominated assembly that rushed through an approval even after more than 20 of its 100 members walked out in protest.

"Down with the constitution of the Brotherhood," the NSF said yesterday, rallying its supporters back on to the streets. "Down with the constitution of tyranny."

The Muslim Brotherhood, which counts Mr Morsi as one of its former leaders, has denied the NSF's claims. It says the constitution is the best in Egypt's history and that the voting has been conducted cleanly and fairly.

The early results proved that the Egyptian people "did not fall in the grip of fear or hopelessness, despite the storms violently stirred by dubious dark forces in the past months", Essam El Erian, vice chairman of the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, said on Sunday.

The renewed protests yesterday showed that Egypt's nearly four-week old political crisis continues despite some efforts from the presidency to concede to the opposition. After huge street protests and a national dialogue session that failed to draw in opposition leaders, Mr Morsi replaced a controversial declaration that gave him powers above the judiciary with a milder version.

The NSF has refused to take part in any negotiations with the president, and says his offers are hollow because he refused to delay the referendum until a consensus could be reached.

Even if the constitution is passed after Saturday's round of voting, the president is faced with a polarised nation. His supporters had forecast a much wider approval margin for the constitution, but the preliminary results showed a narrow approval.

If liberal and secular groups perform well in parliamentary elections in the next few months, the Muslim Brotherhood's influence could be checked after two years of political dominance.

Another sign of his weakening government came on Monday night, when Mr Morsi's newly appointed prosecutor general, Talaat Ibrahim Abdallah, resigned under pressure from judges and lawyers who said his appointment was improper.

The Brotherhood said yesterday that his resignation was a "crime".

Mr Abdallah had been under fire from the legal community and opposition forces since he was appointed last month to replace Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, a Mubarak-era appointee accused of mishandling corruption investigations into members of the old government.

Mr Morsi unsuccessfully tried to remove Mr Mahmoud in October by offering him a position as Egypt's envoy to the Vatican, but Mr Mahmoud loudly refused. Facing a rift with the judiciary, Mr Morsi backed down only to issue the controversial decree a month later that gave him powers beyond the oversight of the judiciary. The same decree forced Mr Mahmoud out of the prosecutor general's office and Mr Morsi appointed Mr Abdallah in his place.

Mr Abdallah's resignation has not yet been accepted by the Supreme Judicial Council, which said it would review it on Sunday, the day after the final round of voting on the constitution.

bhope@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting from Reuters and the Associated Press