CAIRO (AP) — A top Egyptian security official vowed Wednesday that authorities would deal "firmly" with any attempt to disrupt an upcoming referendum on the constitution, a warning directed at followers of the ousted Islamist president who have been staging regular protests since his overthrow.
The interim government installed after Mohammed Morsi's ouster has described the referendum, scheduled to be held within a month, as a milestone on what it says is a roadmap to democracy. It hopes to boost its legitimacy through public approval of the amendments that two secular-leaning panels spent three months making to the 2012 Islamist-influenced constitution adopted under Morsi and suspended after his ouster.
"Any attempt to disrupt the referendum on the constitution will be faced with firmness and decisiveness according to the law," said Chief of General Security Gen. Sayyed Shafiq in remarks carried by Egypt's official news agency. "We will not permit disruption of the democratic transformation."
Morsi's supporters denounced the vote as a "rubber stamp" for the political order set up by the coup, which followed demonstrations by millions calling for the Islamist leader to step down. In a statement, the Muslim Brotherhood's led alliance urged its supporters to "be inventive and creative in laying siege to the coup and its absurd repressive actions, until it perishes completely." It's not clear yet whether they will call for boycott, or rally voters to cast "No" ballots.
The 247-article constitution removed key articles that liberals feared would broaden the role of Islamic Shariah in legislation. It gives the military the eight-year right to choose its army chief and defense minister — proponents say this is needed to protect the military from manipulation by political parties, while opponents say it makes the army unaccountable.
Billboards have gone up on overpasses and highways calling on Egypt's estimated 50 million voters to vote "Yes." TV and radio have dedicated much of their airtime to explain the amendments, highlighting new articles that enable women to become judges, criminalize torture, and declare freedom of belief as "absolute."
However, rights advocates consider the progressive articles little more than ink on paper as long as heavy-handed practices by Egypt's security establishment continues, often authorized by broadly written laws imposing draconian punishments.
The current flashpoint between the interim government and secular-leaning activists, most of whom supported Morsi's ouster, is a protest law that dramatically restricts demonstrations. On Wednesday, a Cairo criminal court ordered the release of 23 detained in connection with protests against the law on bail.
Meanwhile, thousands of members of the Muslim Brotherhood languish behind bars. Many face trial on charges of inciting violence in connection to five months of deadly street clashes. On Wednesday, 62 detainees including a cameraman of Al-Jazeera Mubashir Misr, an offshoot of the Qatari-based network, stood trial over in Cairo on charges of inciting murder and violence in connection to demonstrations on July 15 against the ouster of Morsi.
The network was closed and equipment confiscated for its near round-the-clock coverage of pro-Morsi demonstrations across the country, and for airing smuggled video and audio messages by Brotherhood leaders on the run.