CAIRO— Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Qandil said Saturday that President Mohamed Morsi is preparing to amend a controversial decree that gave the president sweeping powers, in a push to defuse political tensions and deadly violence gripping the country.
Speaking on an Egyptian television, Hisham Qandil said a freshly appointed committee was drafting a new decree that could be approved by early Sunday.
Qandil said the president also wanted talks with elements of the opposition on the possibility of postponing a December 15 referendum on a controversial draft constitution. No other details were provided.
The November 22 emergency decree and the draft constitution days later sparked days of violent protest in Cairo and elsewhere in the country. The president said earlier this week that at least seven people had been killed and hundreds of other injured in the demonstrations.
Earlier Saturday, Egypt's top opposition leaders boycotted a national dialogue meeting at the presidential palace Saturday, despite appeals by the country's military to resolve the latest tensions at the negotiating table.
An Egyptian military spokesman warned political leaders, in a statement read on state television, that the country was “heading towards a dark tunnel,” unless they sat down and solved their differences. “Dialogue,” he said, “is the best and only way to reach consensus.”
The military ruled the country following the ouster of former leader Hosni Mubarak in Feb. 2011, until Islamist Mohamed Morsi was elected president in June of this year. The army spokesman also indicated that the armed forces understand their duty to “protect vital public buildings and installations and the interests of [the people].”
Both state television and the government-owned al Ahram online warned that Morsi would soon issue a decree to reimpose martial law. Egypt had been under martial law for most of the period since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952.
The president issued a constitutional decree several weeks ago giving him sweeping powers until the approval of a new draft constitution, set for a referendum on Dec. 15. Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei called Morsi's refusal to compromise over that constitution “a disaster.”
A rump committee of mostly Islamists approved the draft document in a marathon overnight session one week ago Friday. Secular, leftist and Christian members of the body pulled out before the document was approved, expressing anger over Islamist domination of the body.
Despite widespread public anger over the president's moves, life appeared to be mostly normal in the capital Saturday. Street vendors hawked bread, beans and tea along the broad and mostly empty expanse of Cairo's Tahrir Square, as popular protests diminished in intensity.
Several hundred demonstrators congregated behind a barrier of barbed wire and concrete blocks near the presidential palace as well. Inside the building, a group of mostly Islamist leaders and one opposition figure met for talks with Morsi. Leaders of the main National Salvation Front boycotted the meeting.
Those leaders insist that they will not negotiate with the president until he revokes a decree giving himself sweeping powers and cancels the Dec. 15 referendum on the controversial new constitution. A referendum of Egyptians living abroad set for Saturday was postponed.
Ordinary citizens complained about the paralysis of daily life, and the slow-down of state services, including the judiciary, which remains on strike. One middle-aged man complained that opposition protesters were blocking Cairo's main administrative building, saying he can't go to work because the mostly young demonstrators have blocked off the entrance with barbed wire.
Meanwhile, Islamist leaders issued a statement Saturday, blasting the opposition for “violent protests” and “refusing to submit to the ballot box.” The spiritual guide, or murshid, of Egypt's Islamist Muslim Brotherhood group gave a press conference Saturday, calling on opponents to cease their protests and hold talks.
He said that what's taking place is not opposition, nor a difference of opinion, but is rather-as he put it-corruption, tyranny and criminality. He blasted protesters for trying to topple the president, who he says was elected by the people, and urged the opposition to settle their conflict over the new constitution at the ballot box.
Opposition leaders, however, worry about fraud in the scheduled referendum. President Morsi has claimed in an interview with state television that 80% of the people support the new constitution. The president, however, received just 51.7% of the vote in the June run-off presidential poll.