Mursi gives Egyptian army ”police powers” ahead of referendum

Cairo: Egypt's embattled President Muhammed Mursi on Monday issued a new decree giving police powers to the army to beef up security ahead of this week's referendum on a new Islamist constitution, as the deeply polarised country braced for massive rival protests.

President Mursi has issued the decree, effective from today, ordering the army to "cooperate" with the police, giving it the power of arrest, in a move that may raise fears that Egypt is moving back towards military rule.

"The armed forces must support the police service in complete cooperation in order to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum on the constitution," the decree said.

"Armed forces officers participating in missions to preserve security and protect vital state institutions… all have powers of legal arrest," it added.

The army, which last week had deployed tanks to guard the presidential palace, has built a wall of concrete blocks to seal off the place, which has been the focus of opposition demonstrations.

The military, which ruled Egypt between the ouster of former president Hosni Mubarak in February, 2011, and the election of Mursi in June this year, has sought to remain neutral on the crisis that has plagued the country for weeks.

The present political turmoil began after President Mursi granted himself absolute powers through the November 22 decree that had put his decisions beyond judicial review, a move which gained him titles like "dictator" and "Pharaoh".

Mursi tried to calm protests by annulling the decree giving him Pharaoh-like powers, but the December 15 vote on the new constitution was to go ahead as scheduled.

Egypt's opposition has called for more protests against President Mursi after rejecting his plans for a constitutional referendum later this week on a disputed draft constitution.

Islamist groups have said they will hold counter demonstrations, raising fears of further bloody clashes on the streets of the Egyptian capital.