Struggling to quell violent protests that have threatened to derail a referendum on an Islamist-backed draft constitution, President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt moved Saturday to appease his opponents with a package of concessions hours after state news media reported that he was moving toward imposing a form of martial law to secure the streets and allow the vote.
Mr. Morsi did not budge on a critical demand of the opposition: that he postpone the referendum set for next Saturday to allow a thorough overhaul of the proposed charter, which liberal groups say has inadequate protection of individual rights and provisions that could someday give Muslim religious authorities new influence.
But in a midnight news conference, his prime minister said Mr. Morsi was offering concessions that he had appeared to dismiss out of hand a few days before. The president rescinded most of his sweeping Nov. 22 decree that temporarily elevated his decisions above judicial review and drew tens of thousands of protesters into the streets calling for his downfall. He also offered a convoluted arrangement for the factions to negotiate constitutional amendments this week that would be added to the charter after the vote.
Taken together, the announcements, rolled out over a confusing day, appeared to indicate the president’s determination to do whatever it takes to get to the referendum, which his Islamist supporters say will lay the foundation of a new democracy and a return to stability.
Amid growing concerns among his advisers that the Interior Ministry might be unable to secure either the polls or the institutions of government in the face of renewed violent protests, the state media reported early Saturday that he would soon order the armed forces to keep order and authorize its solders to arrest civilians.
In recent days, mobs have attacked more than two dozen Muslim Brotherhood offices and ransacked the group’s headquarters, and more than seven people have died in street fighting between Islamists and their opponents.
As of early Sunday, Mr. Morsi had not yet formally issued an order calling out the military, raising the possibility that the announcement was intended as a warning to tell his opponents their protests would not derail the vote.
The moves on Saturday offered little hope of fully resolving the standoff, in part because opposition leaders had ruled out — even before his concessions were announced — 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, alluding to previously floated ideas about last-minute talks for constitutional amendments.
Nor did Mr. Morsi’s Islamist allies expect his proposals to succeed. Many said they had concluded that much of the secular opposition was primarily interested in obstructing the transition to democracy at all costs, to try to block the Islamists from winning elections. Instead, some of the president’s supporters privately relished the bind they believed Mr. Morsi had built for the opposition by giving in to some demands, forcing their secular opponents to admit they are afraid to take their case to the ballot box.
For now, the military appears to back Mr. Morsi. Soon after the state newspaper Al Ahram suggested the president would impose martial law, a military spokesman read a statement over state television that echoed Mr. Morsi’s own speeches.
The military “realizes its national responsibility for maintaining the supreme interests of the nation and securing and protecting the vital targets, public institutions and the interests of the innocent citizens,” the spokesman said, warning of “divisions that threaten the State of Egypt.”
“Dialogue is the best and sole way to reach consensus that achieves the interests of the nation and the citizens,” he added. “Anything other than that puts us in a dark tunnel with drastic consequences, which is something that we will not allow.”
If Mr. Morsi goes through with the plan, it would represent a historic role reversal. For six decades, Egypt’s military-backed authoritarian presidents used martial law to hold on to power and to jail Islamists like Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would also come just four months after he managed to pry power out of the hands of the country’s top generals, who had seized control when Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year and then held on to it for three months after Mr. Morsi’s election.
The announcement of impending martial law marked the steepest escalation yet in the political battle between Egypt’s new Islamist leaders and their secular opponents over the draft constitution.
Mr. Morsi said he issued the Nov. 22 decree that set off the crisis to prevent the Mubarak-era courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly and upending the transition to democracy. The terms of his concession were ill-defined; the new decree Mr. Morsi issued Saturday night said he retained the limited authority to issue “constitutional declarations” protecting the draft charter that judges could not overturn. Although the plan for martial law outlined in Al Ahram would not fully suspend civil law, it would nonetheless have the effect of suspending legal rights by empowering soldiers under the control of the defense minister to try civilians in military courts.
Calling in the army could overcome the danger of protests or violence that might disrupt the referendum and the parliamentary election to follow. But resorting to the military to secure the vote could also undermine Mr. Morsi’s hopes that a strong showing for the constitution would be seen as a sign of national consensus that could help end the political crisis.
Brotherhood officials cheered the military’s statements, noting they closely resembled the president’s own speeches about a “national dialogue” and moving forward toward democracy.
But Moataz Abdel-Fattah, a former adviser to Egypt’s transitional prime minister who is close to Defense Minister Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, said that the military also sought to make clear it was not joining either camp.
“The military is saying, ‘Do not let things get so bad that we have to intervene,’ ” Mr. Abdel-Fattah said. “In the short term it is good for President Morsi, but in the long run they are also saying, ‘We belong to the people, and not Mr. Morsi or his opponents.’ ”
After taking office, Mr. Morsi spent months courting the generals, sometimes earning the derision of liberal activists for his public flattery of their role. And the constitution his supporters eventually drew up included protections of the military’s autonomy and privileges within the Egyptian government, despite the protests of the same activists.
Those provisions suggested an understanding between the military and Mr. Morsi that may now allow him to call on the generals’ help.
Under the president’s planned martial law order, Al Ahram said, the military would return to its barracks after parliamentary elections, which are expected to take place two months after the referendum if the constitution is approved.
If the military does secure the polls, that would appear to undermine the opposition’s argument that the latest unrest had all but ruled out this week’s referendum.
“Under the present circumstance, how can you conduct a referendum or an election when chaos is reigning and you have protests everywhere?” Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister under Mr. Mubarak and now an opposition leader, asked in an interview Saturday.