Cairo: Egypt`s embattled President Muhammed Mursi on Monday issued a new decree giving police powers to the Army to beef up security ahead of this week`s referendum on a new Islamist constitution, as the deeply polarised country braced for massive rival protests.
President Mursi has issued the decree, effective from today, ordering the Army to "cooperate" with the police, giving it the power of arrest, in a move that may raise fears that Egypt is moving back towards military rule.
"The armed forces must support the police service in complete cooperation in order to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum on the constitution," the decree said.
"Armed forces officers participating in missions to preserve security and protect vital state institutions... All have powers of legal arrest," it added.
The Army, which last week had deployed tanks to guard the presidential palace, has built a wall of concrete blocks to seal off the place, which has been the focus of opposition demonstrations.
The military, which ruled Egypt between the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011, and the election of Mursi in June this year, has sought to remain neutral on the crisis that has plagued the country for weeks.
The present political turmoil began after President Mursi granted himself absolute powers through the November 22 decree that had put his decisions beyond judicial review, a move which gained him titles like "dictator" and "Pharaoh".
Mursi tried to calm protests by annulling the decree giving him Pharaoh-like powers, but the December 15 vote on the new constitution was to go ahead as scheduled.
Egypt`s opposition has called for more protests against President Mursi after rejecting his plans for a constitutional referendum later this week on a disputed draft constitution.
Islamist groups have said they will hold counter demonstrations, raising fears of further bloody clashes on the streets of the Egyptian capital.
"The National Salvation Front announces its total rejection of the referendum and will not legitimise this referendum which will definitely lead to more strife," Sameh Ashour, who spoke on behalf of the coalition of opposition parties, said yesterday.
Egypt`s Constituent Assembly on November 30 in a marathon session approved a draft constitution imposing Islamic values, a move opposed by Liberals as an attempt to restrict freedom of speech and religion in the country.
According to Egyptian state TV, the articles passed, stipulated that Islam is the religion of the state, and the principles of Sharia, or Islamic law, are the "main source of legislation".
Mursi then decided to hold a referendum on the controversial draft constitution on December 15, a move that sparked further outrage in the country.
In a statement after talks yesterday, the opposition National Salvation Front said it would not recognise the draft constitution "because it does not represent the Egyptian people".
"We reject the referendum which will certainly lead to more division and sedition," spokesman Sameh Ashour said.
In another apparent concession, the President has suspended a big tax increase on the sale of a variety of goods including soft drinks and cigarettes.
The decision was carried in a statement that appeared on Mursi`s Facebook page in the early hours of this morning, state-owned al-Ahram newspaper reported.
Yesterday, hundreds of opposition protesters gathered outside the presidential palace in protest of the referendum.
They chanted anti-Muslim Brotherhood slogans and held up banners reading slogans such as "Mursi, hold back your thugs" and "The people demand the fall of the regime".
Earlier, Mohamed Soudan, foreign relations secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood`s Freedom and Justice Party, said Mursi was constitutionally bound to go ahead with the vote.