Protests grow as Islamists in Egypt rush through a new constitution

Egypt hit by strike threats after assembly backs President's power grab 'project'

Cairo

Egypt's opposition groups were scrambling to mount a challenge to their Islamist foes, as Tahrir Square was once again packed with protesters, and newspapers and television channels prepared to go on strike in protest over President Mohamed Morsi's recent power grab.

The rally came after the nation's constituent assembly, an Islamist-dominated body which many liberals and secularists wanted dissolved, added the finishing touches to Egypt's new national charter in the early hours of yesterday. Hossam el-Gheriyani, chairman of the assembly, said during a live broadcast of the final session that officials would call Mr Morsi and inform him that "the project of the constitution is completed".

The President is due to sign the document today before a referendum in mid-December. At the urging of the Brotherhood, the drafting process was completed two months earlier than planned, to avoid an expected legal challenge by Egypt's judiciary. The finished document has been derided by some analysts for its clumsy language, and was rushed through after dozens of secularists, women and Christians resigned from the assembly. Many were replaced by Islamists, and Human Rights Watch – while noting that the constitution safeguarded some key rights – said the final draft was "flawed and contradictory".

Tens of thousands of Islamists are expected to rally today in support of Mr Morsi outside Cairo University. An original plan to protest in Tahrir Square was aborted following fears of clashes with the opposition protesters. But given the apparent unwillingness of either side to retreat, there are continuing fears that the political brinkmanship will spill over on to the street.

A number of private TV channels and newspapers plan to strike next week in response to the President's decree and the fast-track constitution.

In an attempt to shield himself from the gathering storm, Mr Morsi issued a televised appeal for calm late on Thursday. He explained that last week's presidential decree, which granted him unprecedented powers, was a temporary measure designed to speed the democratic transition. Mr Morsi's declaration led to a partial strike by judges incensed that their powers of oversight had been abrogated. "It will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution," the President said. "There is no place for dictatorship."

But amid the tents and talking-circles of Tahrir Square yesterday, the mood was uncompromising. "I'm a Muslim, but the Brotherhood are not Muslims at all," said Amgad Bashir, a member of Mohamed ElBaradei's Al-Dostour Party. "They do not understand religion and they do not understand the teachings of the Prophet Mohamed. Morsi is running a one-man show."

The chaos of the past two weeks has given Egypt's often disparate secular and liberal opposition a standard to rally around. Yet amid the contending political egos and divergent manifestos, it remains unclear how much unity they can actually bring to bear on Mr Morsi. It also seems likely that the highly organised Brotherhood will get the result it wants in any referendum.

Hossam Moanis, a spokesman for the leftist Popular Current party, said the opposition will continue its defiance. "We will carry on demonstrating, and maybe we can raise the pressure by using civil strikes," he said.

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