CAIRO — Struggling to quell protests and violence that have threatened to derail a vote on an Islamist-backed draft constitution for Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi moved Saturday to appease his opponents with a package of concessions. The announcement came just hours after the state media reported he was moving toward imposing a form of martial law to secure the streets and the polls.
Morsi did not budge on a critical demand of the opposition: that he postpone a referendum set for next Saturday to approve the new constitution in order to allow for a thorough overhaul. His Islamists say the charter will lay the foundation for a new democracy and a return to stability, but liberal groups have faulted it for inadequate protection of individual rights and loopholes that could enable Muslim religious authorities to wield new influence.
But in a midnight news conference, his prime minister said Morsi was offering concessions that he had appeared to dismiss out of hand a few days before. He rescinded most of his sweeping Nov. 22 decree that temporarily elevated his decisions above judicial review and offered a convoluted arrangement for the factions to agree in advance on future amendments that would be added after passage.
His approach, rolled out throughout a confusing day, appeared to indicate a determination to do whatever it takes to get to the referendum. Amid growing concerns among his advisers that the interior ministry may be unable to secure either the polls or the institution of government in the face of violent protests against him, the state media reported early Saturday that Morsi was moving toward ordering the armed forces to keep order and authorizing its solders to arrest civilians.
Morsi has not yet formally issued the order reported in Al Ahram, raising the possibility that the newspaper announcement was intended as a warning to his opponents. His dual gambit held out little hope of fully resolving the standoff, in part because even before his concessions were announced opposition leaders had ruled out any rushed attempt at a compromise just days before the referendum.
“No mind would accept dialogue at gunpoint,” Mohamed Abu El Ghar, an opposition leader, said, alluding to previously floated ideas about last minute deals between factions for amendments.
Nor did his Islamist allies expect his proposals to succeed. Many have said they concluded that much of the secular opposition is primarily interested in obstructing the transition to democracy at all costs, mainly to block the Islamist victory.
Instead, some privately relished the bind they believed Morsi had built for them by giving to their other, more superficial demands and thus, they said privately, forcing their secular opponents to admit they were afraid to take their case to the ballot box.
The military appeared for now, however, to back Morsi. Midday, a military spokesman read a statement over state television saying the military “realizes its national responsibility for maintaining the supreme interests of the nation and securing and protecting the vital targets, public institutions and the interests of the innocent citizens.”
Hundreds of thousands of protesters accusing Morsi and his Islamist allies of monopolizing power have poured into the streets. Demonstrators also have attacked more than two dozen Brotherhood offices around the country, including its headquarters. And judges declared a national strike.
In response, Morsi’s Islamist allies in the assembly rushed out a draft constitution over the boycotts and objections of the secular minority and the Coptic Christian Church. Then, worried that the Interior Ministry might fail to protect the presidential palace from demonstrations outside, Morsi turned to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups to defend it, resulting in a night of street fighting that killed at least six and wounded hundreds in the worst clashes between political factions since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup six decades ago.
The draft charter, ultimately rushed out almost exclusively with Islamist support, stops short of the liberals’ worst fears about imposition of religious rule.
But it leaves loopholes and ambiguities that liberals fear Islamists could use to empower religious groups or restrict individual freedoms.
Morsi’s political allies, in turn, accuse their secular opponents of seeking to scrap democracy because the Islamists won, recalling the Algerian military coup of the early 1990s to abort the first Sunni Islamist electoral victory in the region.
On Saturday, before Morsi made his concessions, Al Ahram, the flagship state newspaper, reported that Morsi “will soon issue a decision for the participation of the armed forces in the duties of maintaining security and protection of vital state institutions.”
The military would maintain its expanded role until the completion of a referendum on a draft constitution next Saturday and the election of a new Parliament expected two months after that.
It was unclear whether he planned to go through with such an order.