CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called for a Dec. 15 referendum on a controversial new constitution on Saturday, a day after an Islamist-dominated assembly rushed its passage and as his supporters jammed the streets in a massive demonstration organized by the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a speech Saturday to the constitution-writing assembly that liberal and other non-Islamist members had abandoned in protest, Morsi called for a "serious national dialogue" to resolve the political crisis sparked late last month when he decreed that he had near-absolute power in the name of speeding up Egypt's democratic transition. Morsi has said his decree would be nullified once the constitution is adopted.
"In building our great nation, we have to overcome disagreements to move to build a great future," Morsi said in his address. "Take into consideration that there are challenges for us in the future at home and abroad. We are capable as Egyptian people."
In the streets around Cairo University, tens of thousands of moderate and more conservative Islamists — the same ones who had joined the revolution that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago — cheered and waved Egyptian flags as Morsi announced a referendum they see as a moment of national triumph.
The other revolutionaries — members of the liberal and more secular segments of society who have been protesting against Morsi's move all week in Tahrir Square — see it as one more step away from their vision of a progressive Egypt.
"Morsi put to referendum a draft constitution that undermines basic freedoms and violates universal values," tweeted leading liberal opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei moments after the president's speech. "The struggle will continue."
In his address, Morsi sought to cast the constitution-drafting process as inclusive, despite the walkouts by secular, liberal, Christian and other non-Islamist members who felt thwarted by the Islamist majority. He noted that the assembly was elected by a democratically elected parliament and emphasized that his own powers would be significantly curtailed if the charter is adopted.
But Morsi's decree, the hasty vote on the charter and now his decision to follow through with the public vote to approve it seem likely only to further galvanize Egypt's normally fragmented opposition, which has already drawn improbable support from judges and other former Mubarak-era figures.
Protesters have hit the streets by the tens of thousands over the past week, most urging Morsi to abandon his decree and start the process of drafting the constitution all over again.