Nasser Nasser, Associated Press
CAIRO — Egypt's judges Tuesday said that most of them would not oversee a nationwide referendum on a contentious draft constitution, as tens of thousands of opponents and supporters of the country's Islamist president staged rival rallies in Cairo, four days ahead of the vote.
The demonstrations and judges' boycott came hours after masked assailants set upon opposition protesters staging a sit-in at Tahrir Square, firing birdshot and swinging knives and sticks, according to security officials. They later said that five "hardened criminals" were arrested in connection with the attack.
Eleven protesters were wounded, the MENA state news agency said, citing a Health Ministry spokesman.
The violence served as a stark reminder of the stakes in Egypt's political battle over the disputed draft constitution, which goes to a nationwide referendum on Saturday. The charter has deeply polarized the nation and triggered some of the worst street violence since Morsi took office in June as Egypt's first freely elected president.
On one side of the divide, there is President Mohammed Morsi, his Muslim Brotherhood and ultraorthodox Salafis, while on the other side there is a collection of liberals, leftists and Christians who claim the draft charter restricts freedoms and gives Islamists vast influence over the running of the country.
With tensions running high, the military appeared to insert itself into the fray when the MENA state news agency reported that Defense Minister Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi had called for talks on Wednesday to discuss how to resolve the crisis.
But the agency then quickly ran a second report, this time quoting an unnamed armed forces spokesman, who denied that el-Sissi had called for dialogue.
Later, the official Facebook page of the armed forces spokesman said el-Sissi was in fact extending an "invitation to the Egyptian family from all segments of the population during which no national dialogue will take place."
Whatever the exact nature of the invitation, it is the second time this week that the military has addressed the crisis, signaling its return to the political fray after handing over power in June to Morsi, Egypt's first civilian president. Earlier this week, it warned of disastrous consequences if the crisis over the country's draft constitution is not resolved.
The powerful military sees itself as the guarantor of Egypt's interests and secular traditions.
Ahmed el-Zind, the chairman of the Judges' Club, said Tuesday that 90 percent of the nation's judges would not oversee the Saturday vote. The move is unlikely to stop the referendum from taking place, but it does cast further doubt on the legitimacy of the constitutional drafting process and, ultimately, the document itself.
President Mohammed Morsi's deputy, Mahmoud Mekki, has said that if there are not enough judges to oversee the referendum, the vote can be staggered over several days. A faction of judges loyal to Morsi has said it would not boycott the vote.
In Cairo's Nasr City district, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold, tens of thousands of the president's backers, some of them waving Egyptian flags, voiced their support Tuesday for the constitution in a massive rally in front of a local mosque.
"I want the chant of 'Morsi' to shake the earth," a man on a stage set up for the occasion shouted into a microphone. "Alleyway to alleyway, house to house, the constitution means stability."
The crowd grew rapidly as dozens of buses, most of them bearing license plate numbers from provinces outside of Cairo, offloaded thousands of Morsi supporters at the venue. Many of them men had beards, a hallmark of Islamists, while the women wore the Muslim veil or the niqab, covering everything except the eyes.
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