CAIRO - Egypt's Islamist president proclaimed the country's newly adopted constitution as the dawning of a "new republic" in a television address Wednesday, calling on the opposition to join a dialogue with him after a month of violent turmoil and focus on repairing a damaged economy.
Mohammed Morsi sought to present the Islamist-drafter charter as the turning of a historic page for Egypt, but his speech did little to ease the suspicions of those who fear he and his Muslim Brotherhood are entrenching their power. He offered no concrete gestures to an opposition that has so far rejected his dialogue and vowed to fight the constitution.
Instead, with a triumphalist tone, he presented the constitution, which was approved by nearly 64 per cent of voters in a referendum that ended last weekend, as creating a democracy with balanced powers between branches of government and political freedoms.
"We don't want to return to an era of one opinion and fake, manufactured majorities. The maturity and consciousness (of voters) heralds that Egypt has set on a path of democracy with no return," Morsi said. "Regardless of the results, for the sake of building the nation, efforts must unite. There is no alternative to a dialogue that is now a necessity."
The opposition says the constitution allows a dictatorship of the majority — which Islamists have won with repeated election victories the past two years. It says the charter's provisions for greater implementation of Islamic law, or Shariah, would allow Islamists who hold the presidency and overwhelmingly dominate the temporary legislature to restrict civil rights and limit the freedoms of minorities and women.
Opponents also say the low turnout in the referendum, just under 33 per cent, undermines the document's legitimacy.
The main opposition National Salvation Front said it would study Morsi's speech to see if his call for dialogue is serious. But it dismissed a "national dialogue" body that he launched before the results emerged as "farcical and simply theatre." The dialogue is mainly between Morsi and other Islamists.
"The president is talking to himself," said Hussein Abdel-Ghani, a leading figure in the Front told a press conference after Morsi's speech. He said the opposition would only enter "real and effective" talks, suggesting Morsi was aiming to assuage the United States, which has called for compromise and talks, without offering real substance. The Front said it will continue to be in opposition to the current rulers who "seek to establish a repressive regime in the name of religion."
Morsi's prerecorded address was his first speech since Dec. 6 after laying low amid the turmoil leading up to the referendum. It came a day after official referendum results were announced, formally bringing into effect the first constitution since the ouster of authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.
Morsi's main message: it is time to put aside differences and start "the epic battle for construction and production."
He said he had asked his Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to make changes to his Cabinet to meet the "needs of the coming period" and to introduce measure to facilitate investment. But he made no gesture of inviting the opposition to join the reshuffled government.
"As we set on a new phase moving from the first republic to the second republic, a republic that has this constitution as its strong base ... I renew my pledge to respect the law and constitution," Morsi said, repeating his oath of office based on the new charter.
The line signalled the formal end of the political system in place in Egypt since 1952, when a military coup pushed out the Western-backed king and Egypt was declared a republic.
Morsi acknowledged the "respectable" proportion that voted against the constitution, but gave no nod to the concerns opponents have over the charter. Liberals and Christians withdrew from the assembly writing the document, complaining that the Islamist majority was railroading it through. Opponents worry about provisions giving Muslim clerics a say over legislation, subordinating many civil rights to Shariah and providing little protection for women's rights.
Morsi declared the constitution Egypt's first to be drafted and passed through a popularly approved process, saying it protects human dignity, enshrines moderation, protects freedoms and ensures rights to work, education and health.
His implicit message to those who complain that the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, is dominating government was that he could be trusted and that in the end, voters can remove them.
"God only knows I make no decision except for God, and for the interest of the nation," Morsi said. "As you know, I am not a lover of authority or someone who is keen to monopolize power. Power is with the people."
He defended decrees he issued in November granting himself sweeping powers, which sparked a wave of protests. He said the decrees, since revoked, were necessary to swiftly push through the constitution to a referendum to end instability. The opposition had urged him to postpone the vote.
The administrator of a Facebook page seen as a major mobilizer for the uprising that forced out Mubarak dismissed Morsi's speech, saying, "His words don't match his deeds."
Abdel-Rahman Mansour, of the "We are All Khaled Said" page, said Morsi had violated earlier promises to respect processes and institutions and is now calling for a dialogue after rushing through a constitution that was highly disputed.
"You can't talk about a second republic when it is based on a constitution that has no national consensus," Mansour said. "He says he doesn't want power but acts differently."
Under the new constitution, the Islamist-dominated Shura Council, the traditionally toothless upper house, was granted temporary legislative powers and began its work on Wednesday. It will legislate until elections for a new lower house are held within two months. Morsi has had legislative powers for months since a court dissolved the law-making lower house of parliament.
Morsi filled out the Shura Council this week by appointing 90 members to bring it to its full 270 members, adding a few non-Islamist members to the body recommended by the national dialogue. But the main liberal and secular opposition groups rejected the appointments as "political bribery."
The parliamentary affairs minister, Mohammed Mahsoub, told Wednesday's session that the government will prepare new legislation for the Shura Council to discuss, including a law to regulate the upcoming parliamentary elections, anti-corruption laws, and laws to organize Egypt's efforts to recover money from corrupt Mubarak-era officials.
Mahsoub said such bills can be ready as early as next week, when the council convenes again for its regular working session.
Nasser Amin, the head of the Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, said that now the conflict has moved from dueling street protests between the regime and opposition to "a new phase of legal disputes over legislation and control of state institutions."
"This is the most critical phase," he said, "and the battle won't be very clear to regular people."