Welcome to a Sunday edition of Middle East Live.
Here’s a roundup of the latest developments:
• President Mohamed Morsi has scrapped a controversial decree granting himself near-absolute powers, but insisted that a referendum on a new constitution would go ahead as planned next Saturday. The concession is unlikely to placate Morsi’s opponents. It came after Egypt‘s military warned that failure to resolve a crisis over the drafting of the constitution would result in “disastrous consequences” that could drag the country into a “dark tunnel”.
• The opposition called for more protests and accused Morsi of continuing to ignore the will of the people. “We call on Egyptian youth to hold peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins in all of Egypt’s squares until our demands are met,” the National Salvation Front said in a statement. Speaking to the BBC World Service, Ahmed Said leader of Free Egyptians Party and a member of the front, said: “This constitution does not represent Egyptians. We need to take time. He wants the constitution, because they want the parliament, they want the Shura council. It all has to do with the Muslim Brotherhood. They want to take over everything.”
State media reported that the cabinet had approved a draft law giving the military the power to “maintain security” until a new constitution was in place. The draft has yet to be signed off by President Morsi but he now works closely with his newly appointed defence minister, a Mubarak-era general.
Morsi must make good his offer to amend the more objectionable articles of the draft constitution and accept candidly that pushing a new basic law through a much boycotted constituent assembly dominated by Islamists and their allies is not a consensual or sensible way to build the new Egypt. Most especially, clauses that would prevent parliamentary scrutiny of the military must be revised.
• Syrian rebels are so confident that they may be on the brink of seizing Damascus that they are allowing themselves to consider what would happen in the chaotic aftermath of a victory, writes Martin Chulov.
The security establishment and presidential palace, so far unbending pillars of state control, are now well within reach, rebel fighters on the outskirts of Damascus say. But to hold on to the city once it falls, they believe, means turning their minds to what comes next.
“This time, unlike July [the last co-ordinated assault on Damascus], the regime are not fighting like they were,” a rebel leader from Darrya, near the capital, said. “They are shelling us from the mountain and bombing us with jets. But they seem cautious. We are dictating terms.”
• Syrian rebel groups have chosen a former officer to head a new Islamist-dominated command structure, in a Western-backed effort to end the chaotic nature of the rebel leadership. Brigadier Selim Idris, was elected by 30 military and civilian members of the joint military command after talks attended by Western and Arab security officials in the Turkish city of Antalya.
Morsi ‘making things worse’
Far from placating the Egyptian opposition Morsi is exacerbating the crisis according to activists and reform leaders.
The president’s decision to press ahead with a referendum on a new constitution was “shocking” and would deepen a political crisis, according to Ahmed Said, a member of the National Salvation Front coalition and head of the liberal Free Egyptians Party.
Speaking to Reuters he said: “It is making things a lot worse. I cannot imagine that after all this they want to pass a constitution that does not represent all Egyptians.”
He said the Front would meet later on Sunday to make a formal response to Morsi’s decision to scrap his decree.
There is also anger at the way the crisis is being portrayed in the media.
Ursula Lindsey on the Arabist blog tackles what she see as a number of false tropes. She says it is not fair to say the opposition has shunned dialogue because Morsi has offered no real concessions. She adds “being democratically elected doesn’t mean everything you do thereafter is by definition democratic.”
The post continues:
The rushed way in which the constitution slapped slapped together and in which the country is proceeding towards the referendum is a disgrace and a logistical nightmare. The Brotherhood is displaying an ineptitude and an impatience that belies its reputation as a far-thinking organisation. It also is very quickly eroding its credibility among all but its core supporters and among those (often, rural poor and/or illiterate) who can be mobilised through religious and identitarian discourse. Being good at winning elections doesn’t make you democratic. And facing resistance doesn’t give you an excuse to be dictatorial.
The prominent activist Egypt activist, The Big Pharaoh, has a message for the western media.
The blogger Karl Sharro, provides a parody of a Guardian editorial on the Egyptian crisis by replacing the references to ‘Morsi’ with ‘Mubarak’.
Morsi’s ‘clever move’
The BBC Middle East correspondent Wyre Davies suggests Morsi’s decision to revoke his power grab is a clever politics, but a meaningless gesture because his controversial decree had already served its purpose.
Ashraf Khalil has similar thoughts. Writing in Time, he explains:
Much of the motivation behind Morsi’s original decree was to place the constituent assembly—the body drafting the constitution–outside the authority of Egypt‘s judiciary. Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood believed Egypt’s supreme constitutional court was about the dissolve the assembly. The ensuing controversy essentially bought the constituent assembly enough time to fast-track a draft and start the clock toward the referendum.
Theoretically, even if the protesters maintain their numbers, Morsi could still ram the constitution through by sheer force of will, momentum and the Brotherhood’s legendary grassroots mobilization machine. Despite the broad nature of the opposing coalition, opposition members are still not optimistic of their ability to defeat the constitution at the ballot box.
But even if it does pass, the lingering bitterness and mistrust born of this controversy could come back to haunt the Brotherhood at Parliamentary elections–which will gear up once there’s a constitution in place.
Activist Nora Soliman says Morsi’s move to cancel his power decree was aimed at placating the judges so that they oversee next Saturday’s referendum.
But will the judges buy it? asks Barbara Ibrahim from the American University in Cairo.
Assad regime in its ‘final phase’
The Assad regime is nearing the end, according to the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence, Gerhard Schindler,.
In an interview with Frankfurter Allgemeinen Sonntagszeitung, he said:
Armed rebels are co-ordinating better, which is making their fight against Assad more effective. Assad’s regime will not survive … Signs are increasing that the regime in Damascus is in its final phase.
Army fortifies presidential palace
As the opposition meets on whether to continue protests, the army has been fortifying the presidential palace.
Army engineers have constructed a concrete wall around Morsi’s complex, barricades outside the palace were breached in Friday’s protests.
Egyptian army engineers and soldiers build a third line of concrete blocks outside of the Egyptian presidential palace on Sunday. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
Updated at 11.09am GMT
Morsi’s decision to revoke his power decree has more to do with placating the judges and the army, than the opposition, according to Abdel-Rahman Hussein in Cairo.
The judges had threatened to boycott the referendum in protest at a decree that put Morsi above the law. Now that it has been rescinded the judges are likely to agree to supervise the ballot, which is Morsi’s priority, Abdu said.
Morsi doesn’t need the declaration any more, because he has got his referendum [date] on the constitution. It will go through. That’s basically what he wanted. And he has also had time to pass through a law that grants the armed forces powers of arrest and detainment over civilians.
The new power for the army amounts to a form of martial law, Abdu said.
Soon after he said that the sound of a jet could be heard flying over Abdu’s apartment. He later confirm it was a military aircraft.
Abdu disputed those who claim Morsi has handled the crisis astutely. The president is seen as inflexible and in some ways responsible for the violence outside the presidential palace, he pointed out.
He doesn’t come out of this looking good. Even if this all ends, it’s not going to help in the future. He’s come out of this looking like the president for the Muslim Brotherhood or the Islamist president, not the president of all Egyptians that he promised he would be.
Abdu said the Muslim Brotherhood’s first choice of presidential candidate, Khairat al-Shater, is seen as the man pulling the shots in the movement.
Morsi is unlikely to back down on calls for next Saturday’s referendum to be delayed, Abdu predicted. But he added: “There are protests planned for the palace today, so it’s not over yet.”
The opposition’s approach to the referendum has yet to be determined. There are calls to boycott the ballot, as well hold strikes on the day. And some still want to call for the vote to be postponed. But the mostly likely opposition tactic will be calls for a no vote, Abdu said.
The outcome of the vote, if it goes ahead, is not certain despite the confidence of the Muslim Brotherhood, he added.
The army’s decision to build a wall outside the Morsi’s presidential palace is a mistake, Abdu argued.
I wouldn’t be surprise if people try to bring down this wall – like they did with the down town walls [earlier this year]. I think building a wall is a ridiculous notion. It never works.
Updated at 12.22pm GMT
Several political parties and movements once again plan to march to the presidential palace Sunday to protest the constitutional declaration and upcoming referendum.
Marches starting from Nour Mosque in Abbasseya, Keshk Mosque in Hedayek al-Qubba and Al-Sa’a Square, Mostafa al-Nahhas and Abbas al-Aqqad streets in Nasr City will head to the palace at 4 pm (2pm GMT).
The April 6 Movement threatened to escalate protests if Morsi refused to cancel the referendum, according to Ahram Weekly.
Morsi’s new decree
Ahram Online provides an unofficial translation of the Morsi’s new decree:
1 The constitutional declaration issued on 22 November 2012 is void starting from today[9 December 2012] and all its consequences remain in effect.
2 If new evidence arises, new investigations will be conducted into the killing, attempted killing, injury or terrorising of citizens between 25 January 2011 and 30 June 2012 if these crimes were related to the revolution.
If the investigations find new evidence related to the above-mentioned crimes, the general prosecution is to refer the case to court of legal jurisdiction, even if there is a final acquittal in the case or if the court rejected the prosecution-general’s appeal on the acquittal.
3 If the people vote against the draft constitution in the referendum on Saturday, 15 December 2012, the president is to call for the direct election of a new Constituent Assembly of 100 members within three months.
The new Assembly is to finish its task within six months from its election date. The president is to then call for a referendum on the new draft presented by the Assembly within thirty days of receiving it.
In all cases, vote counting and the announcement of results in the constitutional referendum is to take place publicly in election subcommittees as soon as the voting process is finished. The results are to be validated by the head of the subcommittee.
4 All constitutional declarations, including the current one, are immune from any challenge in any court and all related lawsuits are considered void.
5 This constitutional declaration is to be published in the Official Newspaper and is valid from the day it is issued.
Jets over Cairo
Egyptian F-16 fighter jets made low passes over the centre of Cairo on Sunday in a rare manoeuvre by the air force over the capital amid high political tension.
At the end of October, jets made similar passes as part of a surprise military exercise.
On Saturday, the army released a statement on political unrest that has killed seven people in the capital, urging supporters and opponents of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi to open talks to stop Egypt descending “into a dark tunnel with disastrous results”.
Updated at 12.46pm GMT
Rebels, including a hardline Islamist group, have seized a government army command centre in northern Syria, forcing more than 100 soldiers to flee, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Jabhat al-Nusra, a group suspected of having links with al-Qaida, helped rebels take over the site – part of the 111th regiment base in the Sheikh Suleiman region of Aleppo province.
Some fighters on the rebel and army side were killed, while around 140 soldiers fled to another military site in the area, the Observatory added.
The report underlines the continuing involvement of Islamist groups, which have been spearheading much of the fighting in the north of Syria.
Western official and rebel leaders are hoping that an injection of French cash to the opposition will mean rebel group can become less reliant on well-funded Islamists fighters, according to Martin Chulov.
One such group, Liwa al-Tawhid, an 8,000-strong militia that fights under the Free Syria Army banner, said it had been able to buy ammunition for the first time since late in the summer, a development that would help it resume military operations without the support of implacable jihadi organisations, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is now playing a lead role in northern Syria.
The French newspaper le Figaro reported this week that French military advisers had recently met with rebel groups inside Syria, in an area between Lebanon and Damascus, in further evidence of efforts by Paris to step up pressure on president Assad.
Russia still sticking by Assad
Russia insists it is not holding any talks on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as US and Russian officials meet again to discuss the crisis.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov held surprising talks with US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and international mediator Lakhdar Brahimi on Thursday, fuelling speculation that Russia may be willing to try to persuade Assad to stand down.
Following Thursday’s meeting Lavrov said Russia had agreed to hold “brainstorming” sessions on how to tackle the crisis Syria.
But Lavrov has denied that Russia is changing its stance, as US and Russian talks with Brahimi resumed in Geneva on Sunday.
Itar-Tass news agency quoted Lavrov saying:
We are not holding any talks on the fate of Assad. All attempts to present the situation differently are rather shady, even for the diplomacy of those countries that are known for striving to distort facts in their own favour.
Our position on Syria is well-known. Moscow does not stick to Assad or to some other figure on the Syrian political scene.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov watches as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives for a group photo at the OSCE conference in Dublin on Thursday. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/AFP/Getty Images
Updated at 1.44pm GMT
Syria and chemical weapons
Debate and speculation continues about Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
Video from activists purports to show a rebel fighter with captured equipment suggesting the Syrian army is prepared for such an attack. It shows cases of protective suits and masks – modelled by men in the clip.
Syrian watcher Aron Lund dismissed eports of Assad’s forces “mixing sarin and putting it into bombs” as pure propaganda and warned against the Syrian opposition planting stories.
But in a blogpost for Syria Comment, he added:
All that said, I think it’s very likely that Assad is currently shifting around his WMD infrastructure to retain control over it, which would mean there is some actual motion on the ground. For example, one of the main chemical warfare installations is allegedly in al-Safira (S/E of Aleppo). That means it would be liable to fall into rebel hands as of right now, if Assad didn’t do something about it. SCUD launch pads and other relevant material would also have to be brought out of rebel reach, or away from areas that have been deprived of effective SAM cover through the loss of air defense installations – rebels are taking these in large numbers. So it’s not surprising at all that the regime is moving stuff around.
On Friday Syria Deeply reported the US had hired consultants to train Syrian rebels in how to secure chemical weapons sites.
Morsi’s party launches ‘yes’ campaign
Mohamed Morsi’s Freedom and Justice party has launched a campaign for a ‘yes’ vote in Saturday referendum.
It dismisses representatives who boycotted the drafting process as representing minority parties and interests.
The website of the campaign carries audio versions of the constitution for the millions of Egyptians who can’t read.
A form of kettling appears to be taking place outside the presidential palace in Cairo – protesters are being prevented from leaving or joining a sit-in outside the complex, according to reports.
Updated at 3.04pm GMT
US dispatches human rights official to Egypt
In an unusually bland statement even by its standards, the state department said Michael Posner will “discuss the ongoing democratic transition process and human rights issues with government officials, political party representatives, civil society activists, and interfaith groups.”
The US has been stopped short of condemning Morsi’s handling of the crisis. Last week Obama praised Morsi’s a call for talks with the oppositon that didn’t take place.
Posner is a human right lawyer and founding director of Human Rights First.
Last month the organisation correctly warned: “Rushing through a draft constitution over the legitimate objections of many Egyptians will not resolve the escalating political conflict in Egypt. In fact, it is likely to precipitate more violent conflict between supporters of Islamist groups that dominate the constitution drafting assembly and their opponents. Such conflict threatens to derail Egypt’s transition to democracy.”
Reports from the wall
The new concrete wall outside the the presidential palace remains the focus for gathering protesters. There is a heavy security presence and continuing reports that soldiers are holding firm despite the odd breach.
A protester jumps as Egyptian army soldiers stand guard in front of the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Sunday. Photograph: Hassan Ammar/AP
Egypt’s tax increases
In the midst of this political crisis, Morsi has used the legislative authorities he possesses to raise taxes, writes Abdel-Rahman Hussein from Cairo
Taxes have been raised on steel, cement, electricity, and diesel, as well as tobacco and alcohol. This apparently comes as part of economic reforms in lieu of Egypt receiving a $4.8bn IMF loan.
The president has also strengthened punitive measures on street sellers, a growing informal sector of the economy. Those sellers caught without a permit or blocking the road can now expect a prison sentence of three months or a 1,000 Egyptian pound fine (£102) for first-time offenders, six months in jail and 5000 Egyptian pound fine (£510) for repeat offenders.
Tax increases are part of a IMF deal to cut Egypt’s deficit from 11% of in 2011/12 to 8.5 of GDP in 2013/14.
Syrianactivists say nine state judges and prosecutors have defected to the opposition, AP reports.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the latest defectors from the regime of President Bashar Assad come from the northern city of Idlib.
In video statement the nine judges identify themselves by name as one of them reads a joint statement and urges others to break ranks with Assad.
Here’s a summary of today’s events:
• Egyptian protesters are marching towards the presidential palace in Cairo after President’s Morsi decision to revoke his power decree failed to quell opposition anger. Demonstrators have gathered at a newly-constructed concrete wall outside the complex where is heavy security presence.
• The opposition has been meeting to discuss its response to Morsi decision and is expected to formally demand that Morsi postpones next Saturday’s referendum on a new constitution rushed through by a constituent assembly dominated by the president’s Islamist supporters. Opposition leaders said Morsi has worsened the crisis by refusing to delay the vote. The April 6 Movement threatened to escalate protests if Morsi refused to cancel the referendum.
• Public anger at Morsi has increased after sweeping tax rises implemented to meet conditions for an IMF loan deal. Taxes have been raised on steel, cement, electricity, and diesel, as well as tobacco and alcohol.
• The military has been granted the power of arrest and detention. A spokesman for the army warned that a failure to resolve a crisis over the drafting of the constitution would result in “disastrous consequences” that could drag the country into a “dark tunnel”.