Egypt Islamists Hurriedly Approve New Constitution

In this Friday, July 13, 2012 photo, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi holds a joint news conference with Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, unseen, at the Presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt.
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By HAMZA HENDAWI and MAGGIE MICHAEL, Associated Press

CAIRO (AP) — Islamists approved a draft constitution for Egypt early Friday without the participation of liberal and Christian members, seeking to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel with a rushed, marathon vote that further inflames the conflict between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.

The vote by the constituent assembly advanced a charter with an Islamist bent that rights experts say could give Muslim clerics oversight over legislation and bring restrictions on freedom of speech, women's rights and other liberties.

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The draft, which the assembly plans to deliver to the president Saturday, must be put to a nationwide referendum within 30 days. Morsi said Thursday it will be held "soon."

The opposition has called for a major rally Friday in Cairo's Tahrir Square, where some demonstrators have camped out in tents since last week to protest decrees Morsi issued to grant himself sweeping powers. Hundreds gathered in the plaza for traditional Friday prayers, then broke into chants of "The people want to bring down the regime!" — echoing the refrain of the Arab Spring revolts, but this time against a democratically elected leader. Other cities around Egypt braced for similar protests.

The Islamist-dominated assembly that has been working on the constitution for months raced to pass the charter, voting article by article on the draft's more than 230 articles for more than 16 hours. The lack of inclusion was on display in the nationally televised gathering: Of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives.

For weeks, liberal, secular and Christian members, already a minority on the 100-member panel, have been withdrawing to protest what they call the Islamists' hijacking of the process.

"This constitution represents the diversity of the Egyptian people. All Egyptians, male and female, will find themselves in this constitution," Essam el-Erian, a representative of the Brotherhood, declared to the assembly after the last articles were passed just after sunrise Friday.

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"We will implement the work of this constitution to hold in high esteem God's law, which was only ink on paper before, and to protect freedoms that were not previously respected," he said.

The sudden rush to finish came as the latest twist in a week-long crisis pitting Brotherhood veteran Morsi and his Islamist supporters against a mostly secular and liberal opposition and the powerful judiciary. Voting had not been expected for another two months. But the assembly abruptly moved it up in order to pass the draft before Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court rules on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.

"I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided," Egypt's top reform leader, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said, speaking on private Al-Nahar TV. But he predicted the document would not last long. "It will be part of political folklore and will go to the garbage bin of history."

A new opposition bloc led by ElBaradei and other liberals said the assembly had lost its legitimacy.

"It is trying to impose a constitution monopolized by one trend and is the furthest from national consensus, produced in a farcical way," the National Salvation Front said in a statement, read by Waheed Abdel-Meguid, one of the assembly members who withdrew.

Thursday's vote escalates the already bruising confrontation sparked last week when Morsi gave himself near absolute powers by neutralizing the judiciary, the last branch of the state not in his hands. Morsi banned the courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly or the upper house of parliament and from reviewing his own decisions.

Speaking in an interview on state TV aired late Thursday, Morsi defended his edicts, saying they were a necessary "delicate surgery" needed to get Egypt through a transitional period and end instability he blamed on the lack of a constitution.