Thousands of Egyptian demonstrators descended on public squares in Cairo and Alexandria on Tuesday, as the country’s president insisted that a rushed constitutional referendum would move forward on Saturday, despite growing turmoil in the country of 83 million people.
The demonstrations underscored the bitter divide over the shape of the nation’s future: Pro-democracy activists say Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has allowed an Islamist-dominated parliament to rush completion of a constitution that would threaten rights for secularists, women, and religious minorities.
Pro-Morsi supporters, including hardline Islamists, reject calls to delay Saturday’s vote on a new constitution until minorities can contribute to the process.
Neither side shows signs of relenting. During demonstrations in Alexandria on Tuesday, pro-Morsi demonstrators shouted, “The people want implementation of Islamic law.” At another venue, Morsi opponents declared, “The people want to bring down the regime.”
Meanwhile, new reports emerged that Islamists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood used military-style tactics to suppress, intimidate, and abuse opponents during protests last week. Pro-democracy activists worry those tactics could be a taste of coming abuse if the chaos continues.
The recent bout of chaos began on Nov. 22 when President Morsi—a member of the Muslim Brotherhood—issued a presidential declaration that left him with sweeping powers over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.
The decree sparked immediate protests, as Morsi pledged the decree would remain in effect until the country approved a new constitution. That process went into overdrive as demonstrations swelled, and an Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly approved a rushed document days after Morsi’s decree. The president said the country would vote on the constitution on Dec. 15.
Demonstrators poured onto the grounds surrounding the presidential palace to protest Morsi’s decree and the constitutional referendum. On Saturday, Morsi rescinded his controversial decree, but the damage was done: The constitution—written mostly by Morsi-backers—was complete, and the president said the vote would go forward.
Critics of the constitution say the document is weak on minority rights, gives the president more power than the previous constitution, and opens the door for Islamic scholars to take an official role in approving the country’s laws.
Meanwhile, opponents also worry about the aggressive tactics they say pro-Morsi supporters have taken to suppress their opposition. That aggression peaked last Wednesday when a group of some 100 Morsi opponents camped in tents near the presidential palace.
When a member of the Muslim Brotherhood called on fellow members to “defend” the president, thousands of Islamists descended on the small camp bearing sticks and rifles. YouTube videos show Islamists storming the camp, chasing away protesters and yelling, “Islamic law is fundamental in Egypt.”
Islamists also set up a makeshift detention facility outside the presidential palace, where they tortured and interrogated nearly 140 Morsi opponents, according to the Associated Press. The news agency reported abuse described by eyewitnesses, including beatings and forced confessions of working with foreigners.
Mohammed Elgarhy, a local journalist, snuck into the detention center, and told AP the aggressors included members of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Outside, anti-Morsi protesters rushed to the scene, where an all-night street battle between the two sides killed at least eight and wounded hundreds. Inside the detention center, victims said Islamists interrogated and beat them for hours.
Yehia Negm, an Egyptian diplomat told AP: “When they found my ID that says I am a diplomat, they started of accusing me of working with security agencies. … They rained down beatings on me. They started yelling at me, saying, ‘You infidels want to burn the country down, you are not Muslims.”
Morsi opponents fear targeted violence could continue if the constitutional referendum goes forward on Saturday. Until then, protesters like Mahmoud Zaghloul—a 22-year-old who was struck in the head by a rock—are processing what has already happened: “One of the most disturbing things was how they chanted ‘God is great’ as they aimed at us.”