Updated Sunday, December 9, 2012 at 10:49 AM
CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi — struggling to quell violence that has threatened to derail a vote on a draft constitution — moved Saturday to appease opponents just hours after state media reported he was moving toward imposing a form of martial law to secure the streets and the polls.
Morsi annulled most of the Nov. 22 decree that gave him near-absolute power and plunged the country into a political crisis that has seemed to worsen by the day.
The decree will be replaced by a modified version of the original declaration, but the most controversial article — the one that placed all of Morsi's actions beyond judicial review and sent tens of thousands into the streets in protest — is gone, said Selim al-Awa, the spokesman for a national political dialogue held Saturday aimed at resolving the crisis.
Morsi, however, did not budge on a crucial demand of the opposition: that he postpone a referendum set for next Saturday to approve the new Islamist-backed constitution to allow for a thorough overhaul.
His Islamists say the charter will lay the foundation for a new democracy and a return to stability, but liberal groups have faulted it for inadequate protection of individual rights and loopholes that could enable Muslim religious authorities to wield new influence.
It remains unclear whether the new moves will be enough to ease a crisis that had degenerated in recent days into unprecedented scenes of division, with Morsi's Islamist backers and his secular and liberal opponents hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails and beating each other bloody with sticks.
Tanks were deployed to the streets around the presidential palace where those clashes took place.
In a midnight news conference, Morsi's prime minister, Hesham Kandil, said Morsi was offering concessions that he had appeared to dismiss a few days before. In addition to rescinding most of the absolute-power decree, he offered a convoluted arrangement for the factions to agree in advance on future amendments to the constitution that would be added after passage.
His approach, rolled out throughout a confusing day, appeared to indicate a determination to do whatever it takes to get to the referendum.
Amid growing concerns among Morsi's advisers that the interior ministry may be unable to secure either the polls or the institution of government in the face of violent protests against him, the state media reported earlier Saturday that Morsi was moving toward ordering the military to keep order and authorizing its solders to arrest civilians.
Morsi has not formally issued the order reported in the state newspaper, Al-Ahram, raising the possibility the newspaper announcement was intended as a warning to his opponents. His dual gambit held out little hope of resolving the standoff, in part because even before his concessions were announced, opposition leaders had ruled out any rushed attempt at a compromise just days before the referendum.
"No mind would accept dialogue at gunpoint," said Mohamed Abu El Ghar, an opposition leader.
Nor did his Islamist allies expect his proposals to succeed. Many have said they concluded that much of the secular opposition is primarily interested in obstructing the transition to democracy at all costs, mainly to block the Islamist victory.
The military said Saturday that it viewed the political crisis with "sorrow and concern" and indicated it was preparing to tighten security. The escalation of "clashes and conflict is something we must avoid," the army said in a statement. It added that without political dialogue, "the nation will be led to dark and disastrous consequences, which we will not allow."
But the military "has no interest in going back into politics," said Talaat Mosallam, a retired major general and security analyst. "They had an uncomfortable experience ruling during the aftermath of the (2011) uprising. The country is in need of political direction, and nobody has the cure."
Morsi's reliance on the military, though, illustrates Egypt's altered political landscape, where what was unimaginable two years ago has been recast by new calculations and power plays.
For decades, Egypt's military-backed authoritarian presidents had used martial law to hold on to power and to punish Islamists like Morsi, who spent months in jail under a similar decree. A turn back to the military would also come just four months after Morsi managed to pry political power out of the hands of the country's powerful generals, who led a transitional government after the ouster of the longtime strongman Hosni Mubarak.
Mohammed Morsi offered concessions.
HASSAN AMMAR / AP
A protester holding oil and sugar chants slogans slamming the Muslim Brotherhood and Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi outside the presidential palace Saturday. The banner behind, with a defaced picture of Morsi, says in Arabic: "the people want to bring down the regime."