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Egypt’s President Reacts to Clashes Between Protesters

December 6, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Heightened debate and protests over the draft of Egypt's constitution have led to deeper divides and violence between supporters and opponents of President Morsi. Margaret Warner speaks with the Atlantic Council's Michele Dunne for more on the clashes, the factions, and Morsi's response to his opposition.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Three more officials announced their resignations in wake of the violence. And late today, in a televised speech, President Morsi called for a comprehensive and productive dialogue. But he also accused some of the opposition of serving the old Mubarak regime.

And he insisted a referendum on the constitution would go ahead on December 15.

Margaret Warner takes the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the clashes and the response by President Morsi, I’m joined now by Michele Dunne. She previously served in the State Department and on the National Security Council staff. And she’s now the director of the RafikHaririCenter for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council.

Michele Dunne, welcome back.

How serious a crisis is this for this new Egyptian government of President Morsi and for Egypt himself?

MICHELE DUNNE, Atlantic Council: This is a pivotal moment in the Egyptian transition and in the history of Egypt after this revolution.

What we’re seeing now is extreme polarization between Islamists and non-Islamist political forces and also between some of the parts of the government that contain people who were still there during the Mubarak regime, for example, the judiciary.

There are a number of senior judges. So there’s a lot at stake here and it’s all centering on this debate over the constitution and whether it should now go to a public vote.

MARGARET WARNER: The Islamists and the secularists, if we crudely divide them into those camps, have been at loggerheads for over a year. Why has it hit such a at least it looks like a crisis point now, with this kind of violence between the two camps?

MICHELE DUNNE: There have been a couple things that have happened in the past couple of weeks.

With this Nov. 22 decree, President Morsi did seize extraordinary powers. Basically, he’s trying to prevent the judiciary from dissolving the constituent assembly that was drafting the constitution and so forth. And what he said was that the judiciary could not annul any of his decrees or so forth. So he’s put himself above the judiciary.

And he also currently has legislative powers, since the parliament was dissolved. So it’s all this power in the hands of one person and then he’s forcing ahead this constitution that is still controversial. A lot of people are really unhappy with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you have known people, you have been in touch with people from the Muslim Brotherhood and people around President Morsi since before the revolution.

And I think you met some of them who are here in Washington this week. How do you explain or how they explain him acting in the way that you just described, which has led some of his opponents to say he’s as autocratic as Mubarak?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, what their side of the story is, is that the judiciary, they believe, was about to dissolve the constituent assembly and basically set the whole political transition back months, so that they could not pass a new constitution, hold new parliamentary elections.

And what they feel is that elements of the old Mubarak regime are trying to force Morsi’s presidency to fail and to keep the political transition from progressing, and that Morsi had to take extraordinary action to prevent that from happening.

But the other side of the story is that what Morsi is now doing is forcing a popular vote which undoubtedly would approve this draft constitution. And then there will be parliamentary elections, but it will be difficult to amend the constitution in the future.

That takes two-thirds of the parliament. And non-Islamists know they’re not going to have that.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you interpret his televised speech tonight? We don’t have all these words. Maybe you have read them in Arabic. But was he extending any sort of olive branch by saying let’s have a dialogue starting Saturday, or is he really taking a hard line?

MICHELE DUNNE: I watched Morsi’s speech, and he offered a very small crumb, I would say, to the opposition. He said that the part of the Nov. 22 decree in which he basically gives himself any power necessary to protect the revolution has been misunderstood and he would be all right with canceling that part of it.

And he invited them to a dialogue with them — with him. However, the dialogue is to be on Saturday, which is when voting outside of Egypt among expatriates would start. And he insisted that voting has to go ahead on the referendum. And I doubt that is going to be acceptable to the opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: And which they haven’t really said, except for one group.

So, what should we look for next? Protests are planned for tomorrow by the opposition; is that right?

MICHELE DUNNE: There will be more protests. We saw today the torching of the Muslim Brotherhood headquarters in Cairo. And I think there — unfortunately, I think there’s going to be more violence.

Now, it’s possible there will also be more concessions. Already, for example, the justice minister who’s part of Morsi’s government hinted that, well, if opposition leaders will just come to this dialogue, perhaps they can discuss deferring the constitutional referendum.

So it may be that there will be more concessions from Morsi’s side to avert more violence.

MARGARET WARNER: And, briefly, does the U.S. have any clout or any power to shape these events?

MICHELE DUNNE: Secretary of State Clinton has said some of the right things within the last 24 hours about the need for dialogue and the need for a constitution that protects the rights of all Egyptians and an inclusive process and so forth.

Now, President Morsi’s advisers heard this message in Washington this week. But I think what’s happening on the streets of Cairo and the resignations of officials from the Egyptian government probably speaks much louder right now.

MARGARET WARNER: Michele Dunne, thanks so much.

MICHELE DUNNE: It was my pleasure, Margaret.