CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi called Saturday for a referendum in two weeks on a disputed draft constitution, as tens of thousands of his supporters celebrated the decision.
Morsi set the date as Dec. 15 in a nationally televised speech to the Islamist-led assembly that hurriedly approved the draft charter amid widening opposition from secular and Christian groups.
Egypt's Constitutional Court was due to rule Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel. If the judges decide to hold their session, whatever the decision, it is still a challenge and a continuation of the tug of war between Morsi and the powerful judiciary, which dissolved the Islamist-dominated parliament earlier this year.
"After receiving this draft constitution, and out of keenness to build the nation's institutions without delay or stalling, I will issue today the call for a public referendum on this draft charter on Saturday, Dec. 15," Morsi said. "I pray to God and hope that it will be a new day of democracy in Egypt."
Morsi urged those who opposed it to go out and vote. "With us all we build the nation," he said.
As he announced the date, more than 100,000 of his supporters danced and chanted in celebration as they gathered in one of Cairo's squares in support of efforts to rush through the draft charter.
The demonstrations — the largest turnout of Morsi supporters since he came to office in June— were seen as a show of strength for Islamists seeking to counter mass opposition protests held over the past week denouncing the president's decision to seize near absolute power and the fast-tracking of the draft charter ahead of a Constitutional Court decision on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.
Across the river, a few thousand of Morsi's opponents rallying in Cairo's Tahrir Square raised their shoes to show contempt for the announcement.
The referendum date placed the next move in the standoff in the hands of the Constitutional Court. It was not clear what a decision to disband the constitutional assembly would have now that the charter has been drafted and a date set for the vote.
Judges, still smarting from Morsi's earlier decrees giving himself and the constitutional assembly immunity from judicial oversight, have threatened to boycott observing the referendum.
In his speech, Morsi appealed to the judges to carry out their duties, praising their national roles and adding that the state will not challenge their decisions or powers.
"I am sure that the judges of Egypt will be of help to their nation and people. No one can act outside legal legitimacy," he said in the official ceremony held for the delivery of the draft constitution attended by panel members, as well as Defense Minister Sheik al-Azhar, and the former prime minister picked by the military council that governed Egypt until Morsi's election.
Despite wide opposition to the constitution and walkouts by secular and Christian representatives from the panel drafting the constitution, Morsi said the constitution establishes a real democratic system and "is going in the right direction."
Opponents say the draft charter has a distinct Islamist bent and rights groups have raised concerns about articles that undermine personal and women rights as well as freedoms of expression.
"We want to overcome disagreements and bickering to move toward serious and productive work. There are massive challenges ahead in the future internally and externally," Morsi said, referring to those who walked out of the panel or are criticizing the draft.
"I tell my opponents before my supporters, help me to carry out this responsibility you bestowed upon me in managing the country's affairs," Morsi said.
He called for a national dialogue to discuss the "concerns" of the nation.
Opponents of Morsi's decision and the charter had held massive rallies over the last week, and several hundreds are holding a sit-in in Tahrir, the epicenter of the uprising that forced former President Hosni Mubarak to step down last year. They had conditioned their participation in a national dialogue on Morsi rescinding his decrees, which they said gave him near-dictatorial powers.
'Undermines basic freedoms'
In an immediate reaction to the referendum date, prominent democracy advocate Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who is a member of a coalition of opposition leaders, said on his Twitter account that Morsi put to a referendum a constitution that "undermines basic freedoms and violates universal rights. The struggle continues."
The opposition announced plans for an intensified street campaign of protests and civil disobedience and even a possible march on Morsi's presidential palace to prevent him from holding a nationwide referendum on the draft. It is not clear whether the opposition can rally enough voters to shoot down the constitution in a referendum or organize a boycott campaign.