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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"The most important thing of this period is that we finish the constitution, so that we have a parliament under the constitution, elected properly, an independent judiciary, and a president who executes the law," Morsi said.

In a sign of the divisions, protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square who were watching the interview late Thursday chanted against Morsi and raised their shoes in the air in contempt.

The president's edicts sparked a powerful backlash in one of the worst bouts of turmoil since last year's ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. At least 200,000 people protested in Cairo earlier this week demanding he rescind the edicts.

[Opinion: Morsi's Egypt Looks a Lot Like Mubarak's Egypt]

The president's Muslim Brotherhood group has called for a similar massive rally for Saturday, though they decided to move the location of the protest in Cairo from Tahrir square to avoid frictions.

Street clashes have already erupted between the two camps the past week, leaving at least two people dead and hundreds wounded. And more violence is possible.

The Constitutional Court's announcement that it would rule on the legitimacy of the assembly was in direct defiance of Morsi's edicts. It will also rule Sunday on whether to dissolve the upper house of parliament, which is overwhelmingly held by Islamists. Most of the nation's judges are on indefinite strike to protest the edicts.

It is not clear what would happen to the approved draft if the court dissolves the assembly. The crisis could move out of the realm of legal questions and even more into the more volatile street, to be decided by which side can bring the most support.

The opposition is considering whether to call for a boycott of any referendum on the constitution or to try to rally a "no" vote, said Hamdeen Sabahi, a National Salvation Front leader who ran in this year's presidential race and came in a surprisingly strong third.

"The people should not be made to choose between a dictatorial declaration or a constitution that doesn't represent all the people," he told independent ONTV, referring to Morsi's decrees. "He is pushing Egypt to more division and confrontation."

During Thursday's session, assembly head Hossam al-Ghiryani doggedly pushed the members to finish. When one article received 16 objections, he pointed out that would require postponing the vote 48 hours under the body's rules. "Now I'm taking the vote again," he said, and all but four members dropped their objections. In the session's final hours, several new articles were hastily written up and added to resolve lingering issues.

"We will teach this constitution to our sons," al-Ghiryani told the gathering.

Islamist members of the panel defended the fast tracking. Hussein Ibrahim of the Brotherhood said the draft reflected six months of debate, including input from liberals before they withdrew.

"People want the constitution because they want stability. Go to villages, to poorer areas, people want stability," he said.

Over the past week, about 30 members have pulled out of the assembly, with mainly Islamists brought in to replace some. As a result, every article 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.

The draft says citizens are equal under the law but an article specifically establishing women's equality was dropped because of disputes over the phrasing.

As in past constitutions, the new draft said the "principles of Islamic law" will be the basis of law.

Previously, the term "principles" allowed wide leeway in interpreting Shariah. But in the draft, a separate new article is added that seeks to define "principles" by pointing to particular theological doctrines and their rules. That could give Islamists the tool for insisting on stricter implementation of rulings of Shariah.