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Egypt’s Morsi sets vote on constitution

– Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi called Saturday for a referendum in two weeks on a contentious draft constitution, setting a date for another milestone in the country’s transition to democracy. Widespread disputes over the charter and Morsi’s recent seizure of near absolute power have marred the process and thrown the country into turmoil.

As has been the case in nearly two years since Hosni Mubarak was ousted, what should have been a cause for national celebration turned into dueling protest between opponents and supporters of how the transition has been managed – largely divided along Islamist and secular lines.

More than 100,000 Morsi supporters organized by the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafi groups took to the streets of Cairo and other cities a day after a massive opposition demonstration against his recent decrees giving him immunity from judicial oversight and the charter that was rushed through an assembly packed with allies.

The presidency has been locked in a tug of war with the powerful judiciary and secular and Christian activists since Morsi granted himself far-reaching powers on Nov. 22 in a bid to pre-empt an expected decision today by the Supreme Constitutional Court to dissolve the constitutional panel, as it had done the Islamist-led parliament earlier this year.

Morsi also decreed that courts cannot dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, the Shura Council – another decision before the Constitution Court today. In protest, most of the nation’s judges have gone on strike.

It was not clear whether Egypt’s highest court would go ahead with today’s session. Any move to do so would be a direct challenge to Morsi and could further undermine the charter’s legitimacy. Judges also have threatened to boycott observing the referendum, and the secular opposition promised a civil disobedience campaign.

“After receiving this draft constitution, and out of keenness to build the nation’s institutions without delay or stalling, I will issue today the call for a public referendum on this draft charter on Saturday, Dec. 15,” Morsi said. “I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt.”

The dispute has thrown Egypt into a fresh round of turmoil and mobilized an increasingly cohesive opposition leadership of prominent liberal and secular politicians – a contrast to the leaderless youth uprising last year that toppled Mubarak.

Late Saturday, a few thousand pro-Morsi supporters gathered outside the building of the Supreme Constitutional Court and set up tents, heightening the tension.

U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said there were internal debates over whether to criticize the draft constitution for limiting freedom of expression, failing to grant freedom of worship, criminalizing blasphemy and eroding women’s rights guarantees.

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