Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi enacted a newly passed divisive constitution Wednesday even as he attempted to reach out to opponents in his most conciliatory remarks since voters began considering the document.
Offering to engage in a national dialogue with an increasingly organized opposition movement, Morsi said in a nationally televised address, “We don’t want to back to a time when there was one opinion and an artificial majority," referring to former President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which ruled Egypt during Mubarak’s nearly 30-year tenure.
Opponents rejected Morsi’s call for talks, saying he can’t be trusted, however, signaling that the nation will remain polarized. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, through which he ascended to the presidency six months ago, have heralded the new document as a pathway to stability. Morsi resigned from the Islamist group after his election.
The opposition groups – Christians, secularists, liberals and moderates – have called the constitution divisive and unrepresentative, saying it was written largely by members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Some also have labeled it illegal, charging that there were irregularities during the referendum.
"We will continue to fight against the constitution with all peaceful means," said Ahmed Said, the head of the Free Egyptians Party.
On Monday, election officials said the constitution had passed a referendum with 63.8 percent of the vote, largely through support in upper Egypt’s rural areas. But only 32 percent of the country’s more than 51 million eligible voters participated in the referendum Dec. 15 and Dec. 22, so the new constitution earned the endorsement of just 21 percent of eligible voters.
Voters in Cairo defeated the document by 56 percent, and liberals and Christians overwhelmingly rejected it, exposing the nation’s deep divide about the path ahead since an uprising here nearly two years ago toppled Mubarak.
The 236-article constitution gives much authority to the parliament, which is to be elected in less than two months. Thirty-three of its articles stipulate that Egyptians will earn rights “according to the law.”
Both Islamists and liberals vowed to make changes to the document: Islamists want it to embrace Islamic law more strictly, while liberals want it to guarantee more freedoms.
Morsi’s tone Wednesday was far different from his speech earlier this month, when he refused to make concessions to opponents and suggested that they were thwarting his democratically elected mandate. At the time, the nation was engaged in daily, sometimes deadly, protests over the document. On Wednesday, Morsi conceded that he’d made mistakes.
He’d given himself legislative and judiciary powers during the transitional period before a new constitution was in place, drawing the ire of opponents and raising fears of a new authoritarian leader. He relinquished absolute judiciary power after the constitutional committee hastily passed the draft document last month.
Many who supported the document said they hoped that it would bring stability, particularly economically. The Egyptian pound has hit an eight-year low against the dollar, and the credit-rating agency Standard & Poor’s earlier this week downgraded Egypt’s credit rating to B-, the same as Greece’s.
In his speech Wednesday, Morsi assured voters that economic stability would result, but he offered no specifics on how.
"The coming days will witness, God willing, the launch of new projects . . . and a package of incentives for investors to support the Egyptian market and the economy," he said.
Morsi also said he was in talks with his prime minister, Hesham Kandil, to reshuffle the Cabinet, but he didn’t say who’d be moved or when. He ended the speech by reciting the oath of office as written in the new constitution.
McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report from Cairo.