Supporters of Egypt’s President Mohammed Morsi have welcomed his call for a 15 December referendum on a controversial draft constitution. A large rally of Islamist supporters at Cairo University cheered the announcement late on Saturday.
But opposition figures vowed to fight on against the draft document, which they say undermines basic freedoms.
Egypt’s highest court is expected to rule later on Sunday on the legitimacy of the assembly that agreed the draft.
Even if the Supreme Constitutional Court were to go as far as deciding to disband the Islamist-dominated constituent assembly, it is unclear whether that would affect the planned 15 December referendum.
The president announced the date of the vote before the assembly, which had worked through the night on Thursday to approve the draft constitution.
After receiving a copy of the document, Mr Morsi called on “all Egyptians” to take part in the referendum, whether or not they agree with the draft.
“The world is looking at how Egyptians will build their institutions to establish their democratic system,” the president added.
His announcement was greeted at the Cairo rally, with the crowds chanting “The people support the president’s decision!”
Hundreds of Islamists who were part of the demonstration in support of the president then marched to the Supreme Constitutional Court in advance of its expected ruling.
The al-Ahram news website reported that the court had asked for a heightened police presence to enable the judges to meet.
‘Struggle will continue’
The BBC’s Jon Leyne in Cairo says that the two weeks until the ballot will be tense, as Egyptians prepare to vote not just on the constitution but also on the country’s future.
The draft constitution and a recent decree giving Mr Morsi sweeping new powers have prompted widespread protests by opponents of the president.
“Morsi put to referendum a draft constitution that undermines basic freedoms and violates universal values. The struggle will continue,” key opposition figure Mohamed ElBaradei tweeted on Saturday.
If approved, the new text will overwrite all constitutional declarations – including Mr Morsi’s decree issued on the 22 November – and a new parliament should be elected within 60 days.
Among the historic changes to Egypt’s system of government, the draft limits a president to two four-year terms. It also introduces some civilian oversight of the military.
The draft keeps in place an article defining “principles of Sharia”, or Islamic law, as the main source of legislation.
Mr Morsi’s supporters point to the fact that he is Egypt’s first freely elected president and argue that liberals and secularists do not represent the vast majority of Egyptians.
But the extent of Mr Morsi’s new powers has raised fears that he might become a new dictator.
Under the recent decree, Mr Morsi’s decisions cannot be revoked by any authority, including the judiciary, until the constitution has been ratified and a fresh parliamentary election held.
Senior judges have opposed the move, and opponents have held mass rallies across the country in the past week. Many anti-government activists remain camped out in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
UN Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay has written to the president, asking him to reconsider his decree and warning that “approving a constitution in these circumstances could be a deeply divisive move”.