Egypt sets date for contentious referendum

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CAIRO -- Employing its clout and powerful organization, the Muslim Brotherhood turned out millions across Egypt on Saturday in support of President Mohammed Morsi, a show of strength that suggested the challenges facing those who accuse the president of granting himself dictatorial powers one day before a critical court decision.

The demonstrations coincided with Morsi's announcement that he had signed off on a hurriedly drafted constitution and set Dec. 15 for a countrywide referendum on the document. He took the action even though the constitutional court might rule Sunday that the Brotherhood-dominated assembly that wrote the document had been constituted illegally.

"This is the first time in our nation's history an elected assembly drafts the constitution," Morsi said. "I am calling for Egyptians to vote for the new constitution."

How the court will decide and whether there is any mechanism to enforce its decision if it overturns Morsi's actions were unanswered questions, made more critical by the outpouring of support shown in Brotherhood rallies in Cairo and Alexandria, Egypt's two largest cities, and other locations around the nation. The turnout was many times larger than the anti-Morsi protests held in recent days.

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State television used split-screens to broadcast scenes from the massive pro-Morsi rallies as it showed the comparatively meager remnants of an anti-Morsi rally held Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square. The technique emphasized the difference in the size of the crowds the Brotherhood could turn out and those generated by the secularists, liberals and Christians who oppose Morsi's most recent decree, in which he exempted his declarations from court oversight.

The contrast was undeniable -- and not just in numbers. The protests yesterday were filled with bearded Islamists and conservative women, many from poorer neighborhoods. Those who came to Tahrir on Friday clearly represented the nation's upper class, with unveiled women and clean-shaven men.

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