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Date Set for Egypt Referendum
December 2, 2012

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The date for the referendum on Egypt's draft constitution is December 15, President Mohamed Morsi has announced. How many people will vote on that day is a big question.

Capping a turbulent several days, Morsi made the announcement that the constitution-writing panel had finished the document by the original deadline, despite being given an extra two months in a recent Morsi decree, in which the President also granted himself expansive new powers, including immunity from judicial oversight, and later insisted that he would ceded those powers once the country had a functioning constitution.

More than 100,000 people gathered in a Cairo square danced and shouted in jubilation at the announcement, their hopes high for a new era of democratic government.

All was not well in nearby Tahrir Square, however, where opponents to Morsi and the Islamist-led government and constitution-writing panel continued to gather, voicing their dismay at the Islamic majority, in particular for what the protesters warned was a sharply conservative enshrinement of Islamic law into the constitution, most notably curtailing the rights of freedom of expression and the rights of women. Christian and other more liberal members had quite the panel in protest, and many of those people signalled their intention to boycott the referendum.

Morsi, meanwhile, called for a national dialogue on the dispute. Such a coming-together would be in sharp contrast to what has transpired in recent days, with opposing large gatherings occurring on different days in order to avoid possible violent conflicts between the groups. The membership of the Shura, the only house of Parliament in existence at the moment, and of the constitution-writing panel reflects Egyptian society as a whole: largely Islamic, with a delineation along religious lines between conservatives, represented by the Salafis, and more moderates, represented in large part by the Muslim Brotherhood, along with a vocal yet small minority of Christians.

The dispute has also highlighted tensions between the new and old governments. Parliament is made up of a majority of people who were outlawed during the reign of former President Hosni Mubarak. Morsi himself, a longtime member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was a political prisoner for a time. The nation's judiciary is filled with judges appointed by Mubarak. The high court dissolved both the People's Assembly and the constitution-writing panel earlier this year. Morsi reinstated the panel, however, and, in his recent decrees, prevented the dissolution of the Shura.

The Supreme Constitutional Court, due to issue a ruling on the legitimacy of the panel writing the constitution, halted work indefinitely, saying that the combination of Morsi's immunity decrees and the completion of the constitution made moot any decisions the court might make.

Meanwhile, a key adviser to Morsi has joined the opposition. Samir Morkos, the only Christian in Morsi's leadership team, resigned after the recent decrees and has now joined the National Salvation Front, which has gained many members in recent days and weeks, among them Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed El-Baradei and former Arab League Chief Amr Moussa.

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