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Egypt’s Morsi annuls most of contested decree, stays firm on Dec. 15 referendum

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CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi early Sunday annulled most of an extraordinary Nov. 22 decree that gave him near-absolute power and has plunged this nation into a deeply divisive political crisis.

The decree, which Morsi had said was necessary to move Egypt’s democratic transition forward, will be replaced by a modified version of the original declaration. But the most controversial article, which placed all of Morsi’s actions beyond judicial review, is gone, said ­Mohammad Salim al-Awa, spokesman for a national political dialogue held Saturday.

That satisfies a key demand of opposition leaders, though the article has already served its purpose for Morsi. He had used it to protect an Islamist-dominated constitution-writing panel from dissolution by Egypt’s highest court, enabling the panel to pass a controversial draft charter. And a Dec. 15 referendum that opposition forces had wanted canceled will go ahead as planned, Awa said.

All but a handful of opposition figures had boycotted the national dialogue, saying that if the referendum was going ahead, there was nothing to talk about.

It remains unclear whether the compromise will be enough to calm a political crisis that has split the revolutionary allies who ousted strongman Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago. In recent days, the crisis has degenerated into violent scenes of division, with Morsi’s Islamist backers and his secular, liberal and non-Islamist opponents beating each other bloody with rocks, sticks and clubs.

Further details of the new constitutional decree were unclear. But as the national dialogue got underway Saturday, Morsi appeared to be preparing to grant the military broad powers to arrest civilians and keep public order until a new constitution is approved and parliamentary elections are held, according to a report Saturday in the state-run newspaper al-­Ahram.

The move was approved by Morsi’s cabinet, the newspaper said, and would require him to issue a new decree for it to take effect, which Morsi had not done by late Saturday.

The nation’s armed forces followed that report with a broadcast statement Saturday afternoon clearly supporting Morsi’s call for a dialogue to end the crisis, saying that anything else would lead the nation into a “dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe.”

“These divisions defy the fundamentals of the Egyptian state, and threaten its national security,” read the statement issued by the Ministry of Defense, which is headed by a Morsi appointee.

Egypt’s U.S.-supplied military, perhaps the nation’s most powerful institution, has cast itself as interested purely in national stability. Military officials have said the armed forces are not taking sides in a political crisis that has divided Egypt into Islamists who support Morsi and a coalition of liberals, secularists, Christians and others who do not, a group that includes some figures from Mubarak’s government.

But several analysts said that, read together, Saturday’s statements about the military seemed to place Egypt’s powerful armed forces on the side of Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood backers.

The basis for such an alliance may be Morsi’s continued push for the Dec. 15 referendum on a constitution that enshrines the military’s power to an unprecedented degree. The charter was passed in a rushed vote of an elected, Islamist-dominated assembly over the objections of liberal, secular and Christian members who walked out.

Morsi has said that opposition forces may have some legitimate concerns about the charter. But he has also sought to remind the world that the Islamists were elected — he frequently refers to those who would thwart “legitimacy” — and has suggested that the opposition is being manipulated by those whose true interest is ousting his government.

Many in the opposition have come to believe the same about Morsi, that he cannot be trusted and that he and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters are interested only in Islamist power. They have repeatedly called for Morsi to abandon the draft constitution and start over.

Instead, Morsi seems to be pressing forward, perhaps with assurances of military support.

“The military is getting what it wants out of this constitution,” said Heba Morayef, director of Human Rights Watch’s Egypt office. “The only thing the military cares about is ensuring its privileges.”

Saturday’s statements also evoke a possible replay of the period after Mubarak’s ouster, when the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deployed military police to the streets.

The military police and the generals commanding them were widely criticized for arresting, beating and torturing hundreds of civilian protesters and sexually abusing the women among them. Egypt’s administration court eventually suspended the military’s authority to carry out such arrests.

Now, after rescinding his decree, Morsi is issuing a new one that may grant those powers to the military once again.

“That means Morsi is confident that he can deploy the military as needed,” Morayef said. “So that is actually further evidence that Morsi and the military are likely working together, although there may be limits to what the military is willing to do.”

Sharaf al-Hourani and Abigail Hauslohner contributed to this report.

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