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Islamists rally behind Morsi as Egypt's rifts widen

02 December, 2012

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CAIRO: At least 200,000 people demonstrated in Cairo on Saturday in support of President Mohamed Morsi, who is rushing through a constitution to try to defuse opposition fury over his newly expanded powers.

"The people want the implementation of God's law," chanted flag-waving demonstrators, many of them bussed in from the countryside, who choked streets leading to Cairo University, where Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood had called the protest. The numbers swelled through the afternoon, peaking in the early evening at least 200,000, said Reuters witnesses, basing their estimates on previous Cairo rallies. The authorities declined to give an estimate for the crowd size.

Morsi was expected later in the day to set a date for a referendum on the constitution hastily approved by an Islamist-dominated drafting assembly on Friday after a 19-hour session. "We will certainly present the constitution to the president tonight," Mohamed al-Beltagy, a Muslim Brotherhood leader and a member of the constituent assembly, told Reuters. Morsi plunged Egypt into a new crisis last week when he gave himself extensive powers and put his decisions beyond judicial challenge, saying this was a temporary measure to speed Egypt's democratic transition until the new constitution is in place.

His assertion of authority in a decree issued on November 22, a day after he won world praise for brokering a Gaza truce between Israel and the Hamas movement, dismayed his opponents and widened divisions among Egypt's 83 million people. Two people have been killed and hundreds wounded in protests by disparate opposition forces drawn together and re-energised by a decree they see as a dictatorial power grab. Tens of thousands of Egyptians had protested against Morsi on Friday. "The people want to bring down the regime," they chanted in Cairo's Tahrir Square, echoing the trademark slogan of the revolts against Hosni Mubarak and Arab leaders elsewhere. Rival demonstrators threw stones after dark in the northern city of Alexandria and a town in the Nile Delta. Similar clashes erupted again briefly in Alexandria on Saturday, state TV said.

Mohamed Noshi, 23, a pharmacist from Mansoura, north of Cairo, said he had joined the rally in Cairo to support Morsi and his decree. "Those in Tahrir don't represent everyone. Most people support Morsi and aren't against the decree," he said. Mohamed Ibrahim, a scholar and a member of the constituent assembly, said secular-minded Egyptians had been in a losing battle from the start. "They will be sure of complete popular defeat today in a mass Egyptian protest that says 'no to the conspiratorial minority, no to destructive directions and yes for stability and sharia (Islamic law)'," he told Reuters.

Morsi has alienated many of the judges who must supervise the referendum. His decree nullified the ability of the courts, many of them staffed by Mubarak-era appointees, to strike down his measures, although says he respects judicial independence. A source at the presidency said Morsi might rely on the minority of judges who support him to supervise the vote.

"Oh Morsi, go ahead and cleanse the judiciary, we are behind you," shouted Islamist demonstrators in Cairo. Morsi has put his liberal, leftist, Christian and other opponents in a bind. If they boycott the referendum, the constitution would pass anyway. If they secured a "no" vote to defeat the draft, the president could retain the powers he has unilaterally assumed.

End.

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