Egypt’s embattled presidency showed signs of ceding to some of its opponents’ demands after tens of thousands of activists thronged around the presidential palace on Friday in a deepening of the country’s constitutional crisis.
Muslim Brotherhood-backed President Mohammed Morsi would consider delaying a constitutional referendum scheduled for Dec. 15 if political opponents agree not to challenge the new date in court, his vice president, Mahmoud Mekki, said on television Friday evening.
In another concession, Mr. Morsi’s newly appointed public prosecutor announced the release of dozens of people arrested during violence in front of the presidential palace on Wednesday night.
Mr. Mekki’s offer represents a second government bid in as many days to bridge Egypt’s increasingly perilous divide. The showdown, between Mr. Morsi’s mostly secular opponents and the powerful Islamists who back the president, has frozen the country’s politics for weeks and sparked deadly street-level violence.
Opponents of Mr. Morsi—who have rallied angrily after the president gave himself extraordinary powers in a declaration late last month and placed himself above judiciary oversight—had demanded, among other things, that he defer plans to hold a Dec. 15 referendum on Egypt’s freshly drafted constitution. These opponents say the document is an Islamist-tinged charter drafted by a body that was unfairly stacked with Morsi allies.
It was unclear late Friday whether the offer would appease Mr. Morsi’s restive opponents, who were meeting to consider whether to accept it and meet for dialogue Saturday with the president at his besieged palace.
A spokesman for the National Reconciliation Front, a grouping of former presidential candidates and activists who have opposed Mr. Morsi’s expanded powers, said the offer amounted to only a half-measure because if failed to address the constitutional declaration at the heart of protester anger.
“A couple of weeks ago, this was a quiet country. Then there was a constitutional declaration and everyone ran into the streets. Then they added a referendum, and people got more angry,” said Ahmed Kamel, a spokesman for former presidential candidate Amr Moussa, one of the front’s leaders. “Now they’re delaying the referendum and keeping the original cause of the anger in the streets.”
Nevertheless, the presidential camp’s latest offer revived what many here have seen as a last chance for political reconciliation ahead of the planned referendum.
Hemmed in by ultra-conservative supporters on one side and secularist revolutionary activists and Egypt’s Christian minority on the other, Mr. Morsi is navigating a narrow political channel, said Khaled Fahmy, a political analyst and history professor at the American University in Cairo. He said compromises like those offered Friday would make the president appear weak to his power base while failing to win over his opposition. “Something much more substantial needs to be done. The Brotherhood needs to realize that they cannot rule the country alone. They need partners,” he said.
Late Thursday evening, Mr. Morsi had appeared on television with an offer to meet with his opponents about withdrawing the article from last month’s declaration that gave him extraordinary powers. The offer, which came just hours after tanks were deployed to disperse protesters from around the presidential palace, appeared to have done more to inflame anger against the president than to soothe it, according to some activists.
Secular-leaning political leaders rejected that offer earlier Friday. Tens of thousands of Morsi opponents descended on the presidential palace in protest.
Those at the palace and in Tahrir Square remained mostly peaceful, breaking with a cycle of violent clashes that left six dead and hundreds injured this week. After nightfall, however, dozens of protesters breached a police cordon outside Mr. Morsi’s palace, setting off scuffles with a military unit charged with protecting the president. By midnight, the scene in front of the palace had calmed as protesters spread blankets and prepared to bed down for the night.
Egypt’s state news agency reported that 11 people were injured during protests across the country. It also reported fighting between security forces and non-Islamist protesters outside Mr. Morsi’s home in the Nile Delta city of Sharqiya.
The question is whether the newer offer, which could create time for broader political negotiations, will help narrow the country’s deepest ideological fissures in decades.
Demonstrators in front of the presidential palace earlier Friday reprised slogans from protests early last year that led to the undoing of then-President Hosni Mubarak. Many hoisted red cards, as if warning Mr. Morsi of his violations like a referee warns a soccer player.
Just as demonstrators camped out in Tahrir Square for 18 days before Mr. Mubarak stepped down in early 2011, several protesters said they would sleep in the rough Friday night until Mr. Morsi yields some of his expansive powers.
Still others pledged to remain until Mr. Morsi follows in Mr. Mubarak’s footsteps and abdicates.
“All of the people here think that Morsi isn’t the president of the nation, he’s the president of the Brotherhood,” said Mohammed Talal, 30, referring to the powerful Muslim Brotherhood organization that Mr. Morsi once led. “In his speech last night, he was talking to one sect of the country.”
The National Salvation Front said in a statement earlier Friday that Mr. Morsi’s late Thursday speech had been “disappointing” for its “surprising denial of the facts.”
The front, which is led by Egyptian Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei, pledged to continue using “all legitimate means” to defend Egyptians’ “rights and freedoms and correct the course of the revolution.”
Mr. Morsi’s speech “deliberately divided Egyptians into either ‘supporters of legitimacy’ or into ‘opponents,’ who were described as thugs,” the statement read.
“The president insisted on pushing towards holding the referendum on a constitution that devastates the rights and freedoms of Egyptians and establishes an authoritarian regime, a constitution that does not enjoy the consensus of Egyptians who have not participated in its making,” the statement read.
The National Association for Change, another secular-leaning activist group that Mr. ElBaradei once led, echoed the front’s rejection of dialogue earlier Friday.
Mr. Mekki, who offered the proposal later Friday, was at the center of a faltering step at dialogue earlier this week. Speaking with reporters Wednesday, the vice president floated an offer to negotiate with the opposition. He later said the offer wasn’t a formal government initiative, but was his own personal offer.
Mr. Morsi’s opponents have taken umbrage at his effort, in last month’s decree, to place himself above judicial oversight. Mr. Morsi and his backers in the Muslim Brotherhood have said the decree is temporary and argue that the judges remain loyal to Egypt’s ousted regime and were intent on annulling a constitutional drafting committee stocked with Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters.
To avoid a confrontation with the courts, the president’s Islamist allies in the 100-seat constitutional assembly rushed to complete a draft of the constitution, even after about two dozen secular and Christian delegates resigned from the body in protest over Islamist bullying.
Though the proposed constitution is only slightly more Islamist than Egypt’s previous constitution, its harried passage has emerged as a symbol of Egyptian Islamists’ maximalist attitudes toward power.
“Morsi broke his promises and told lies,” said Victor Naguib, 47, who was standing outside the presidential palace on Friday. “He betrayed the sons of Egypt.”
In an elaborate nod to Egyptian sectarian unity, Mr. Naguib had painted a cross on one side of his face and an Islamic crescent on the other. He also shaved half of his scraggly beard and mustache to represent the congress between Islamists and secularists.
Mr. Naguib said he planned to sleep in front of the palace overnight to prevent any opposition leaders from attending Mr. Morsi’s proposed reconciliation meeting Saturday.
Mr. Morsi’s invitation to negotiate reminded Mr. Naguib of a moment in Egypt’s history when another head of state vied for absolute power.
When Mohammed Ali Pasha hoped to consolidate his authority over Egypt in 1811, he invited the leaders of his opponents, the warlike Mamluks, to a grand banquet at Cairo’s Citadel fortress. After the meal ended and the unsuspecting Mamluks began to file out the door, Ali signaled his guards to slit their throats.
Mohammed Ali’s dynasty ruled until Egypt’s last revolution in 1952.
Photo: Protesters hold a banner reading in Arabic, “Go away,” referring to Mohammed Morsi, in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Thursday.