CAIRO - Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has granted arrest powers to the military to help safeguard a planned referendum on the country's new constitution, a move seen as could drag the army into politics in the heavyweight Arab country.
"The armed forces will work within a legal framework to secure the referendum and will return (to barracks) as soon as the referendum is over," presidential spokesman Yasser Ali was quoted as saying by Reuters.
The decree, gazetted late on Sunday, December 9, said the military would support police in safeguarding the December 15 referendum on the new constitution.
It orders the military to fully cooperate with police "to preserve security and protect vital state institutions for a temporary period, up to the announcement of the results from the referendum".
The decree, which takes effect on the eve of planned mass rallies against the constitution, gave army officers the right to make arrests and transfer detainees to prosecutors.
"The latest law giving the armed forces the right to arrest anyone involved in illegal actions such as burning buildings or damaging public sites is to ensure security during the referendum only," a military source told Reuters.
"The armed forces secured polling stations during previous elections when it was in charge of the country," the source said, referring to 16 months of army rule after autocrat leader Hosni Mubarak fell.
"Now the president is in charge. In order for the armed forces to be involved in securing the referendum, a law had to be issued saying so.
Political turmoil has gripped Egypt in recent weeks following a decree granting Morsi sweeping powers.
Though the Islamist leader rescinded the decree, he kept the date of the referendum on the divisive constitution on December 15.
Opponents accuse the Egyptian president of siding with his Islamist allies, vowing massive protests to scupper the referendum.
The army has already deployed tanks around Morsi's presidential palace since Thursday following deadly clashes between opponents and supporters of the Islamist president.
But army troops have not confronted thousands of protesters who have gathered around the palace every night.
But analysts rule out that the move would drag the army into the turbulent political scene in Egypt.
"They realize that interfering again in a situation of civil combat will squeeze them between two rocks," Hassan Abu Taleb of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told Reuters.
The military took over after a popular revolt ended Mubarak's 30 years of army-backed rule last year.
The army then handed power to Morsi, who became Egypt's first freely elected leader in June. The military has not intervened in the latest crisis.
On Saturday, the military urged rival political forces to solve their disputes via dialogue and said the opposite would drag the country into a "dark tunnel", which it would not allow.
A statement issued by the military spokesman and read on state radio and television said a solution to the political crisis should not contradict "legitimacy and the rules of democracy".
A military source close to top officers said the statement "does not indicate any future intervention in politics".
The army statement said the military's duty was to protect national interests and secure vital state institutions.
"The armed forces affirm that dialogue is the best and only way to reach consensus," it added."The opposite of that will bring us to a dark tunnel that will result in catastrophe and that is something we will not allow."