Egypt's Morsi Backs Off Added Powers

In Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi has annulled a decree that gave him sweeping new powers last month. But the newly elected president is still facing major resistance to his efforts to ram through a new constitution. Weekend Edition Sunday host Rachel Martin talks with NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson about the latest news from Egypt.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi has made what could be seen as a concession to the masses of protesters who've been on the streets for the past week in Cairo. Last month, President Morsi granted himself near absolute powers. That sparked Egypt's worst political crisis since former leader Hosni Mubarak was ousted nearly two years ago. After meeting with opposition leaders yesterday, President Morsi said he would give up those powers. The decision was announced by one of his former rivals at a hastily called midnight news conference.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI: (foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: President Morsi also made it clear that a referendum over the controversial draft constitution will move ahead as planned. We join NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo for the latest. Thanks for talking with us, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: You're welcome, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, tell us more. What do we know about last night's announcement?

NELSON: Well, besides the fact that he's going to give up these powers, which have caused such consternation, he also mentioned that the draft constitution will in fact be voted on as-is, as planned. And also that all the decisions he's made while he's had these powers will stay in place. That means that the draft constitution doesn't change. It can't be appealed. The fact that he fired the prosecutor general won't be revoked, and similar decisions that very much have made secular Egyptians and oppositions leaders very, very uncomfortable.

MARTIN: So, what's been the reaction to this announcement?

NELSON: People are still scratching their heads here a bit about what this exactly meant. It sounded so dramatic on its face that he was revoking these powers, but as it turns out he really didn't do much other than move up the date for when he was planning to give it up in the first place. So, opposition leaders are still meeting to try and make a decision about this. Those that have come out have definitely said demonstrations will continue. And some analysts here describe it as a very dangerous development. This is what Khaled Fahmy, who chairs the history department at the American University in Cairo had to say:

KHALED FAHMY: He's basically saying very clearly, it's not that I am the president of all Egyptians, but I am a president of Islamist Egypt, and making very little concessions to his opponents.

NELSON: So, as a result, it's widely expected that Egyptians will become even more polarized than they are at the moment.

MARTIN: Morsi is using a lot of his own political capital to push this draft constitution through. Why is this such a big deal? Why the urgency for him?

NELSON: Well, I think he and the Muslim Brotherhood, to which he belongs, they're a little bit nervous about this loss of popularity they have. I think they realize they don't really have a popular mandate. And so they want this constitution that basically opens the door to more Islamist influence on politics, on law, on cultural and social life here. They would like to see this thing passed.

MARTIN: Soraya, these Egyptian military leadership also weighed in yesterday on the political crisis. Those leaders urging the government of President Morsi and the opposition in a statement to come some kind of consensus. And the military warned of disastrous consequences if they don't. What does that mean? That sounds dire.

NELSON: Yes. Some people might interpret that to meant that the general's plan to send in the troops to quell the unrest. But what's important to remember is that even in yesterday's statement they made it clear they were reluctant to get involved. For one thing, they and Morsi do not have the best relationship. He fired the ruling generals last August, and he sort of tried to sideline them. And then for another thing, they didn't fare so well when they got involved last time after Mubarak's departure. But Morsi is trying to sweeten the deal for them, if you will. I mean, he's left their control of their budget in the hands of the generals. He also is talking about allowing them to resume their arrest of civilians, in which case it could be that the armed forces will step in if the unrest continues.

MARTIN: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Cairo. Thanks so much, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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