CAIRO — Egypt's interim prime minister on Tuesday urged Egyptians to vote in the upcoming referendum on the revised constitution, a step he described as a milestone in the country's path toward democracy.
Two secular-leaning panels spent three months rewriting Egypt's 2012 constitution, drafted by an Islamist-led panel and suspended after the ouster of President Mohammed Morsi in a popularly-backed military coup in July.
The military-backed plan is a crucial test for the post-coup authorities, especially as they face continuing protests by Morsi's supporters and disenchantment from within the circles of pro-democracy advocates and liberal allies of the interim government over heavy-handed crackdowns on dissent.
"It's a turning point," Interim Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi told journalists of the coming vote, adding: "the first phase passed successful and with excellence ... We have to move to the next phase." The referendum is to take place in the next 30 days, an exact date to be chosen by the interim president.
He urged voters not to entangle themselves in disputes over certain clauses, but to focus on the "spirit of the constitution."
The draft shoots down Islamists' favorite articles which liberals feared would pave the way for extensive implementation of Islamic Shariah law and gives the military right to choose their leader for the next eight years. Proponents of the contentious military article considered it necessary to protect the army from political manipulation; critics say it extends their special privileges.
The draft also left the door open for changes in the transition plan and on whether the country will hold presidential or parliamentary elections first.
According to the head of the 50-member constituent panel Amr Moussa, it's up to the Interim President Adly Mansour — head of Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court — to decide which vote will come first. If presidential elections take place first, Egypt might have a new president by early next year.
The developments come as unrest continues to disrupt the country and deeply damage its economy.
Not a day passes without street clashes between security forces and demonstrators demanding Morsi's reinstatement and decrying last summers crackdowns on protest camps that left hundreds dead and thousands imprisoned. Meanwhile, policemen and the military have come under sporadic attacks in bombings or drive-by shootings by suspected Islamic militants.
Egypt's Interior Minister Gen. Mohammed Ibrahim, standing next to el-Beblawi at a news conference, accused Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood of links to Islamic militancy to restore Islamists' power.
"We dealt strong blows to the organization," he told reporters, "the jihadists are helping the Brotherhood to bring them back to the stage." He warned university students, now holding protests over the killing of a student during clashes with police, of "conspiracy plotted" by Morsi's supporters to drag the police into a confrontation with non-Islamist students.
"I still say, until now, we are patient," said Ibrahim, adding, "I hope that the students wake up and learn that what is happening is a conspiracy against the nation to bring back the Brotherhood back to the scene."
The government reiterated that it would implement a contentious law that heavily restricts demonstrations, requiring advance police permits and punishing violators with jail terms and fines. The law drove a wedge between the government and its secular activist allies.
On Tuesday, security forces arrested Ahmed Douma, a well-known activist over accusations that he participated in a demonstration in front of a court building last week.