Egypt postponed the start of early voting on a disputed draft constitution Friday, signaling an attempt by President Mohammad Mursi’s government to back down and give room for negotiations with the opposition as it faces mass protests calling for the referendum to be canceled.
Tens of thousands of Egyptian protesters surged around Mursi’s palace in Cairo after breaking through barbed wire barricades and climbing onto army tanks guarding the premises.
“The people want the downfall of the regime” and “Leave, leave,” they chanted, employing slogans used in the uprising that toppled Mursi’s predecessor Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Vice President Mahmoud Mekky announced Mursi would be ready to postpone an election on a draft constitution opposed by the liberal opposition if it could be done in a way to avoid a legal challenge.
One of the demands of Mursi’s opponents is that he scrap the referendum on a constitution that he pushed through a drafting assembly dominated by Islamists and then said would go to a vote on Dec. 15.
The head of Egypt’s election committee also said the planned voting of Egyptians who live abroad on the constitution has been postponed, signaling a possible attempt by Mursi to allow room for talks with the opposition.
The weeklong expatriate voting, which had been due to begin Saturday, will start Wednesday instead.
Opposition leaders earlier rejected a national dialogue proposed by the Islamist president as a way out of a crisis that has polarized the nation and provoked deadly street clashes.
Elite Republican Guard units had ringed the palace with tanks and barbed wire Thursday after a night of violence between Islamist supporters of Mursi and their opponents, in which seven people were killed and 350 wounded.
Islamists, who had obeyed a military order for demonstrators to leave the palace environs, held funerals Friday at Cairo’s Al-Azhar Mosque for six Mursi partisans who were among the dead. “With our blood and souls, we sacrifice to Islam,” they chanted.
Mursi had offered few concessions in a speech late Thursday, refusing to retract a Nov. 22 decree in which he assumed sweeping powers or cancel a referendum next week on the constitution. Instead, the president called for a dialogue at his office Saturday to chart a way forward for Egypt after the referendum, an idea that liberal, leftist and other opposition leaders rebuffed.
A leader of the main opposition coalition said it would not join Mursi’s dialogue: “The National Salvation Front is not taking part in the dialogue,” said Ahmad Said a leader of the coalition, who also heads the liberal Free Egyptians Party.
The Front’s coordinator, Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel peace laureate, urged “national forces” to shun what he called an offer based on “arm-twisting and imposition of a fait accompli.”
Murad Ali, spokesman of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said opposition reactions were sad: “What exit to this crisis do they have other than dialogue?” he asked.
Mursi’s decree giving himself extra powers sparked the worst political crisis since he took office in June and set off renewed unrest that is dimming Egypt’s hopes of stability and economic recovery after nearly two years of turmoil following the overthrow of Mubarak, a military-backed strongman.
The crisis has exposed contrasting visions for Egypt, one held by Islamists, who were suppressed for decades by the army, and another by their rivals, who fear religious conservatives want to squeeze out other voices and restrict social freedoms.
Caught in the middle are many of Egypt’s 83 million people who are desperate for an end to political turbulence threatening their precarious livelihoods in an economy under severe strain.
“We are so tired, by God,” said Mohammad Ali, a laborer. “I did not vote for Mursi nor anyone else. I only care about bringing food to my family, but I haven’t had work for a week.”
A long political standoff will make it harder for Mursi’s government to tackle the crushing budget deficit and stave off a balance of payments crisis. Austerity measures, especially cuts in costly fuel subsidies, seem inevitable to meet the terms of a $4.8-billion IMF loan that Egypt hopes to clinch this month.
U.S. President Barack Obama told Mursi of his “deep concern” about casualties in this week’s clashes and said “dialogue should occur without preconditions.”
Said, the leader of the Free Egyptians Party, accused Mursi of ignoring all the opposition’s demands in his “shocking” speech Thursday and of fixing the dialogue agenda in advance.
Ayman Mohammad, 29, a protester at the palace, said Mursi should scrap the draft constitution and heed popular demands.
“He is the president of the republic. He can’t just work for the Muslim Brotherhood,” Mohammad said of the eight-decade-old Islamist movement that propelled Mursi from obscurity to power.
The conflict between Islamists and opponents who each believe the other is twisting the democratic rules to thwart them has poisoned the political atmosphere in Egypt.
“Is this an environment for people to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to a document that is going to divide them rather than unite them?” Said asked, referring to the planned vote on the constitution.