CAIRO — Crowds of protesters marched on the presidential palace in Cairo on Sunday, registering fresh anger against President Mohammed Morsi's plan to go ahead with a referendum on an Islamist-backed draft constitution.
With efforts to quell the tensions flagging, Morsi on Sunday issued an order placing security over government institutions in the hands of the military until after the results of Saturday's referendum, the Associated Press reported. The order, which will take effect on Monday, also grants soldiers the right to arrest civilians.
In a concession to the opposition, Morsi rescinded on Saturday most of a sweeping Nov. 22 decree that temporarily elevated his decisions above judicial review and that had put tens of thousands of protesters into the streets calling for his downfall. He also offered a convoluted arrangement for the factions to negotiate constitutional amendments this week that would be added to the charter after the vote.
But, Morsi did not budge on a critical demand: that he postpone the referendum set for Saturday to allow a thorough overhaul of the proposed charter, which liberal groups say has inadequate protection of individual rights and provisions that could someday give Muslim religious authorities new influence. His decision Sunday to deploy the military, which has been widely interpreted as imposing martial law, seemed to indicate his resolve.
Some opposition leaders vowed to continue the fight to derail the referendum, including the National Salvation Front, which announced that it would meet to decide on a course of action, the Associated Press reported.
"We are against this process from start to finish," a spokesman of the National Salvation Front, Hussein Abdel Ghani, said Sunday, according to Reuters. He called for more street protests on Tuesday.
"We have broken the barrier of fear: A constitution that aborts our rights and freedoms is one that we will bring down today before tomorrow," Mohamed ElBaradei, the former diplomat now acting as coordinator of the secular opposition, wrote on Twitter early Sunday. "Our power is in our will."
In recent days, protesters have attacked more than two dozen Muslim Brotherhood offices and ransacked the group's headquarters, and more than seven people have died in street fighting between Islamists and their opponents.
The moves over the weekend offered little hope of fully resolving the standoff, in part because opposition leaders had ruled out — even before his concessions were announced — any rushed attempt at a compromise just days before the referendum.
"No mind would accept dialogue at gunpoint," said Mohamed Abu El Ghar, an opposition leader, alluding to previously floated ideas about last-minute talks for constitutional amendments.
Nor did Morsi's Islamist allies expect his proposals to succeed. Many said they had concluded that much of the secular opposition was primarily interested in obstructing the transition to democracy at all costs, to try to block the Islamists from winning elections. Instead, some of the president's supporters privately relished the bind they believed Morsi had built for the opposition by giving in to some demands, forcing their secular opponents to admit they are afraid to take their case to the ballot box. Soon after the state newspaper Al-Ahram suggested on Saturday the president would impose martial law, a military spokesman read a statement over state television that echoed Morsi's own speeches.
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," the spokesman said, warning of "divisions that threaten the State of Egypt."
"Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and the citizens," he added. "Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow."