Islamist-led assembly votes on Egypt constitution

The vote escalates a confrontation that has already thrown Egypt into turmoil

An Islamist-dominated panel began a fast-track vote on a final draft of a new Egyptian constitution today, pushing through the document despite liberals' boycott in a move likely to stoke a deepening political crisis between the Islamist president and the opposition.

The assembly, overwhelmingly made up of allies of President Mohammed Morsi, abruptly moved up the vote — which hadn't been expected to take place for another two months — in order to pass the draft before Egypt's Supreme Constitution Court rules on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel. 

The vote escalates a confrontation that has already thrown Egypt into turmoil, between Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters on one side and a largely secular and liberal opposition and the nation's judiciary on the other. It was sparked when Morsi last week granted himself near absolute powers to neutralize the judiciary, the last branch of the state not in his hands. 

The confrontation has already led to street clashes between the two camps — and more violence is possible. At least 200,000 people protested in Cairo's Tahrir square earlier this week against Morsi's decrees. The opposition plans another large protest for Friday, and the Brotherhood has called a similar massive rally for the following day. 

Only a week ago, Morsi had given the 100-member panel two more months to try to iron out the sharp differences over the draft after his edicts barred the courts from dissolving the body. But when the Constitutional Court defied his decree and said Wednesday that it would rule on the panel's legitimacy, the date of the vote was immediately moved up. 

Over the past week, about 30 members have pulled out of the assembly to protest what they call the hijacking of the process by Islamists loyal to Morsi. As Thursday's session began, the assembly held a vote to formally remove 11 of those who withdrew and replace them with reserve members — who largely belong to the Islamist camp. The 11 included former foreign minister and presidential candidate Amr Moussa, liberal politician Waheed Abdel-Maguid and two Christians. 

As a result, as the members began voting on the draft article by article, each passed overwhelmingly. The draft largely reflects the conservative vision of the Islamists, with articles that rights activists, liberals and others fear will lead to restrictions on the rights of women and minorities and on civil liberties in general. 

One article that passed underlined that the state will protect "the true nature of the Egyptian family ... and promote its morals and values," as well as balance between a woman's "duties to her family and her public work." The draft also contains no article specifically establishing equality between men and women because of disputes over the phrasing. 

As in past constitutions, the new draft says that the "principles of Islamic law" will be the basis of law. But in a new article, the draft states that Egypt's most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah, a measure critics fear will lead to oversight of legislation by clerics. 

Praising the draft, panel president Hossam al-Ghiryani, told members: "We will teach this constitution to our sons." 

Morsi is expected to call for a referendum on the draft as early as mid-December. 

The committee has been plagued by controversy from the start. It was created by the first parliament elected after the fall last year of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But a first permutation of the assembly, also Islamist-dominated, was disbanded by the courts. A new one was created just before the lower house of parliament, also Brotherhood-led, was dissolved by the judiciary earlier this year. 

Dissolving the panel and replacing it with a more inclusive body is a key demand by the liberal-led opposition. It also calls for rescinding the president's decrees that placed him above oversight of any kind, including by the courts, and shielded the panel and the upper chamber of parliament, known as the Shura Council, from the courts. 

Defying Morsi's edict, the constitutional court on Sunday will also decide on the legitimacy of the Shura Council, which overwhelmingly consists of Islamists. Egypt's judiciary dissolved the lower-house of parliament earlier this year, and after taking office in June, Morsi took on legislative powers himself. 

If the constitution passes, Morsi will hand over legislative powers to the Shura Council until elections for a new lower house are held, according to Prime Minister Hesham Kandil. The Shura Council is normally a toothless body and very few Egyptians voted in elections for it last winter — turnout was less than 10 percent — which led to the Brotherhood and other Islamists taking the vast majority of its seats. 

Morsi's edicts have brought to a head the long brewing tensions between the president and the opposition. Critics accuse the Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, of using their election victories to monopolize the state, squeezing out other factions, and pushing through an Islamist vision. 

Morsi and his supporters say his decrees were necessary to "protect the revolution" and prevent the judiciary from holding up what they say is a transition to democracy. 

Morsi became the country's first ever freely elected president when he narrowly won a June vote against Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq. His critics say he and his Muslim Brotherhood are too preoccupied with tightening their grip on power to effectively deal with some of the country's many pressing problems.

AP

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