Morsi gives army powers of arrest

Egyptian opposition protests

The BBC’s Shaimaa Khalil says Egypt has become a visibly divided country

Egypt’s President Morsi has ordered the military to maintain security and protect state institutions in the run-up to a referendum on the constitution.

The army has also been given the power of arrest.

Mr Morsi has tried to calm public anger by annulling a decree giving him huge powers, but rejected a call to scrap the 15 December vote on a new constitution.

Opposition leaders rejected the move and called for protests on Tuesday.

Islamist groups have said they will hold counter demonstrations, raising fears of further bloody clashes on the streets of the Egyptian capital.

In another apparent concession, the president suspended a big tax increase on the sale of a variety of goods including soft drinks, cigarettes and beer.

The decision was carried in a statement that appeared on Mr Morsi’s Facebook page in the early hours of Monday, state-owned al-Ahram newspaper reported.

‘Division and sedition’

As tension increased before Saturday’s referendum, Mr Morsi ordered the military to maintain security “up to the announcement of the results from the referendum”, AFP news agency reports.

The BBC’s Jon Leyne in Cairo says the step will raise fears that Egypt is moving back towards military rule.

Under the new presidential decree, the military is asked to co-ordinate with the police on maintaining security and is also entitled to arrest civilians.

The police have been seen as weakened since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak and failed to intervene when anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters ransacked the Islamist movement’s Cairo headquarters last week, correspondents say.

An increased military presence was visible on Monday morning close to the presidential palace, which has been the focus of opposition demonstrations. The army has sealed off the area with concrete blocks.

It is not yet clear if the opposition will boycott Saturday’s referendum. They complain that the body that drafted the constitution was dominated by Mohammed Morsi’s Islamist allies.

In a statement after talks on Sunday, the opposition National Salvation Front said it would not recognise the draft constitution “because it does not represent the Egyptian people”.

“We reject the referendum which will certainly lead to more division and sedition,” spokesman Sameh Ashour said.

On Sunday, hundreds of opposition protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in protest at the referendum.

They chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans and held up banners reading slogans such as “Morsi, hold back your thugs” and “The people demand the fall of the regime”.

“The voting will still take place on the 15th and we are all here because we’re saying no, none of us want a cult to rule us,” said one protester quoted by the Associated Press news agency.

Mohamed Soudan, foreign relations secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said Mr Morsi was constitutionally bound to go ahead with the vote.

The president says he is trying to safeguard the revolution that overthrew Hosni Mubarak last year, but his critics accuse him of acting like a dictator.

Mr Morsi’s decree of 22 November stripped the judiciary of any right to challenge his decisions and triggered violent protests.

Although the decree has been annulled, some decisions taken under it still stand.

The general prosecutor, who was dismissed, will not be reinstated, and the retrial of former regime officials will go ahead.