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Egypt's Morsi Authorizes Military To Arrest Civilians

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm David Greene.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Opposition leaders in Egypt are warning that their country is headed for a violent confrontation - this, as President Mohammed Morsi pushes for a nationwide vote, in just five days, on a controversial draft constitution. Over the weekend, Morsi agreed to give up the near-absolute powers he assumed last month. That did little, though, to appease the opposition in what's become the worst political crisis, in Egypt, since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago. Nevertheless, Morsi is determined to press on, and is now calling on the military to arrest civilians who stand in the way.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the latest, from Cairo.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Starting today, Egypt's military can once again arrest civilians, and take over other law-and-order duties as it sees fit. That Morsi would give the military that kind of authority, shows how nervous the president is about the groundswell against him. But the Egyptian military has thus far said it doesn't want to get in the middle of the fight between the Islamists who run the government, and their largely secular opposition.

KHALED FAHMY: The military has found itself in a very, very awkward - to put it mildly -situation.

NELSON: That's Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo. He says the military has been stung before. Its conduct after Mubarak was ousted was criticized worldwide, especially when the armed forces arrested and tried thousands of Egyptian civilians.

FAHMY: They don't want to repeat this, especially in light of what is happening now, because now it's not that the people are protesting against the government. It is that the people are divided. What will you do with a tank in the middle of a demonstration of, let's say, 100,000 people? Half of them are for the government and then the other half is against? What will you do?

NELSON: That scenario could be on the horizon as the turmoil in Egypt grows. Rival protests by his supporters and opponents erupted again last night across Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

NELSON: Morsi supporters in this televised rally sang Islamic songs and chanted that those stand against him are un-Islamic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINGING)

NELSON: Anti-Morsi protestors gathered once again outside the presidential palace, vowing not to leave until the president backs down. That seems unlikely, after a weekend in which he and his opponents made it clear neither will compromise, even as Morsi in a surprise move agreed to give up absolute powers he had assumed last month.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At a televised late night news conference on Saturday, it was announced that the president would press ahead with the constitutional referendum no matter what. That vote on the hastily crafted draft, which critics say opens the door to greater Islamist say over Egyptian law and life, starts on Wednesday.

Khaled Fahmy is one of those critics. The professor accuses Morsi of being a president for Islamists rather than all Egyptians.

FAHMY: He's telling his hardcore supporters from the Muslim Brotherhood, I am not going to make any serious changes and making very, very few concessions to his opponents.

SAMEH ASHOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: At a chaotic news conference last night, Sameh Ashour, who is a leader of the main opposition group, rejected the planned referendum.

One of the spokesmen for that group, called the National Salvation Front, is Khaled Dawoud.

KHALED DAWOUD: The front confirms its commitment to refuse the present draft constitution which was not reached through consensus and also because it basically shows no concern for social, economic and political rights and confirms a tyrant state.

NELSON: The National Salvation Front says it will be up to Egyptians to decide whether or not to boycott the polls.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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