Cairo faces rival protests over constitution crisis

Egyptians to march to the Presidential Palace over new constitution and referendum

Muslim Brotherhood Egyptian presidential candidate Mohammed Morsi gives a press conference in Cairo on May 26, 2012. Picture: AFP

CAIRO - Opponents and supporters of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's plans to vote on a new constitution will take to the streets in central Cairo later on Tuesday, risking more violent confrontation after last week's deadly clashes.

Leftists, liberals and other opposition groups have called for marches to the presidential palace in the afternoon to protest against the hastily arranged referendum planned for Saturday, which they say is polarising the country.

Islamists, who dominated the body that drew up the constitution, have urged their followers to turn out "in millions" the same day in a show of support for the president and for a referendum they feel sure of winning.

Critics say the new legislation could put Egypt in a religious straitjacket.

Seven people were killed and hundreds wounded last week in clashes between the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood and opponents besieging Morsi's graffiti-daubed presidential palace.

The elite Republican Guard has yet to use force to keep protesters away from the palace, now ringed with tanks, barbed wire and concrete barricades.

A decree issued by Morsi late on Sunday gives the armed forces the power to arrest civilians during the referendum and until the announcement of the results.

Leftist politician Hamdeen Sabahy, one of the most prominent members of the National Salvation Front opposition coalition, said Morsi was driving a wedge between Egyptians and destroying prospects for consensus.

As well as pushing the early referendum, Morsi has angered opponents by taking sweeping temporary powers he said were necessary to secure the country's transition to stability.

This was after a popular uprising overthrew autocratic former president Hosni Mubarak 22 months ago.

"The road Mohamed Morsi is taking now does not create the possibility for national consensus," said Sabahy.

If the constitution was passed, he said: "Egypt will continue in this really charged state. It is certain that this constitution is driving us to more political polarisation."

The National Salvation Front also includes Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa.

The opposition says the draft constitution fails to embrace the diversity of 83 million Egyptians, a tenth of whom are Christians, and invites Muslim clerics to influence lawmaking.

But debate over the details has largely given way to noisy street protests and megaphone politics, keeping Egypt off balance and ill equipped to deal with a looming economic crisis.

The continuing disruption is also casting doubts on the government's ability to push through tough economic reforms that form part of a proposed $4.8 billion (3 billion pounds) IMF loan agreement.