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Top Morsy aide: Small, powerful minority behind Egypt's political upheaval

By Reza Sayah and Amir Ahmed, CNN
December 11, 2012 -- Updated 0007 GMT (0807 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy gives army authority to arrest civilians
  • Morsy's top aide says troops have been deployed ahead of the vote
  • In CNN interview, the aide blamed the upheaval on businessmen and the media
  • The opposition is calling for new, nationwide protests ahead of Saturday's vote

Read a version of this story in Arabic.

Cairo (CNN) -- A top aide to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy blamed a small but powerful minority for the political upheaval that has plagued the country ahead of a planned constitutional referendum.

The country will vote Saturday on whether they approve or disapprove of a new constitution recently drafted.

The statements are the latest in a volley of accusations between Morsy's supporters and opponents, and they highlight a political crisis that at times has spilled into the streets, prompting the president to deploy troops and tanks to protect government buildings.

"You have the majority of the poor people, the simple, definitely for the president and for the constitution," Muhammad Rifaa al-Tahtawi, Morsy's chief of staff, told CNN on Sunday.

"You have a majority among the elite who are not for this constitution. Businessmen, media people. They are definitely a small minority, but powerful minority."

A street vendor grills corn as Egyptian soldiers stand guard at the Presidential Palace on Tuesday, December 18, in Cairo. Protesters opposed to President Mohamed Morsy's first round of voting in the constitutional referendum gather during continuing demonstrations. A street vendor grills corn as Egyptian soldiers stand guard at the Presidential Palace on Tuesday, December 18, in Cairo. Protesters opposed to President Mohamed Morsy's first round of voting in the constitutional referendum gather during continuing demonstrations.
Egyptians protest presidential powers
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Al-Tahtawi's comments followed calls by the opposition for new, nationwide protests while accusing Morsy of risking a "violent confrontation" by moving forward with the scheduled vote Saturday.

Read more: What's driving Egypt's unrest?

But al-Tahtawi dismissed the threat, saying the issue would be decided by the people.

"If we do not manage to come to terms, let us go to the people," he said.

Even so, Morsy has authorized the army to help maintain security ahead of the vote, giving it the power to arrest civilians.

Al-Tahtawi told CNN the army will work with police to protect voters and government building's during voting.

"It is possible that we'll have problems. But if voters turn out en masse, I don't think there will be any violence," he said.

Opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei told CNN's Christiane Amanpour on Monday that the groups opposing the constitution are still considering their response.

"We will either boycott or vote no," he said, calling the entire process illegitimate.

Last week, protesters marched almost every day on the presidential palace, which has been the scene of violent clashes pitting thousands of protesters -- for and against Morsy.

Egyptian authorities said at least six people have been killed in violent clashes in recent days, while the Muslim Brotherhood -- the group that backs Morsy -- has said eight of its members were killed.

More than two dozen Muslim Brotherhood offices, as well as its headquarters in Cairo, have been attacked.

The crisis erupted in late November when Morsy issued the edict allowing himself to run the country unchecked until a new constitution was drafted, a move that sat uncomfortably with many Egyptians who said it reminded them of ousted President Hosni Mubarak's rule.

Morsy had said the powers were necessary and temporary.

Anger about Morsy's move led to protesters reoccupying Tahrir Square, the scene of the Arab Spring uprising that saw Mubarak ousted in 2011. Thousands later protested outside the palace, where the opposition clashed with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The anger only grew when the Islamist-dominated Constitutional Assembly pushed through a draft despite the objections of the secular opposition, including some members who walked out in protest.

Morsy, who is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood's political party, has refused to delay the referendum, saying a constitution is essential for the fledgling democracy. The opposition, meanwhile, says the document does not represent all Egyptians.

The opposition has accused Islamists, predominantly the Muslim Brotherhood, of manipulating the poorer portions of the population, using a fear of God and religion to drive them to vote.

In an interview with CNN, al-Tahtawi, who also is backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, disagreed with the opposition's characterization, describing it as "part of the disease of the elite."

An independent judiciary has backed Morsy, finding that the referendum must be carried out on December 15 to meet a legal requirement.

Morsy canceled the edict that gave him virtually unchecked powers over the weekend, though he did not roll back the directives he put in place before it. Among the steps he took was setting the date of the constitutional referendum.

A coalition of Egyptian Islamic parties, including the Brotherhood, says it rejects any postponement of the vote. A countering coalition of Morsy's opponents, the National Salvation Front, called for protests Tuesday and Friday.

CNN's Reza Sayah reported from Cairo, and Amir Ahmed from Atlanta. CNN's Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

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