Islamists stamp mark on Egypt's draft constitution

CAIRO Fri Nov 30, 2012 8:40pm IST

Shaaban Darwish, an Islamist member of the constitutional committee, arrives at the Shura Council during the final vote on a new draft constitution in Cairo November 29, 2012. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

Shaaban Darwish, an Islamist member of the constitutional committee, arrives at the Shura Council during the final vote on a new draft constitution in Cairo November 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's hastily-adopted draft constitution has widened splits between Islamists and opponents alarmed by the contents of a document meant to enshrine a transition from autocracy in the most populous Arab nation.

The constitution, which will go to a referendum after President Mohamed Mursi approves it, defines the president's powers and limits him to two terms, while adding flavours to the taste of the Islamists who dominated the drafting process.

Liberals, Christians and others who had already quit the drafting assembly said the document pushed through on Friday would further polarise a nation in turmoil since an uprising ended President Hosni Mubarak's 30-year rule 21 months ago.

Mursi wants swift action on the constitution to try to defuse opposition to a decree he issued last week temporarily giving himself powers that exceed those enjoyed by Mubarak.

Despite fiery street protests, opponents may be unable to derail the blueprint's passage, given the proven ability of Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood and hardline Salafi Islamists to mobilise voters among Egypt's deeply religious population.

"The people will agree because they (the Islamists) will use religion, they trade on religion," said Mina Tarek, 25, among thousands who joined anti-Mursi protests across Egypt on Friday. "They will tell them to say 'yes' in order to go to heaven."

The Brotherhood, which propelled Mursi to a narrow election victory against a former Mubarak ally in June, was the main voice in a drafting assembly that debated presidential powers, the status of Islam, the military's role and human rights.

Apart from presidential term limits, the constitution introduces a degree of oversight over Egypt's powerful military establishment - though not enough for critics who also flayed vague wording that could be used to erode human rights.

The draft forbids blasphemy and "insults to any person", does not explicitly uphold women's rights and demands respect for "religion, traditions and family values".

Such loose language dismays Edward Ghaleb, a Christian who sat in the drafting body until the Coptic church withdrew its delegates in protest at Islamist influence over the document.

"We wanted Egyptians to get more freedoms and fewer presidential powers," he said. "Islamists' dominance ... led them to write it alone in a way that suited their interests."

About 10 percent of Egypt's 83 million people are Orthodox Copts. Socialists and liberals also quit the assembly. Even clerics from the authoritative Sunni Muslim al-Azhar religious school threatened to pull out, advocating a more moderate text.

"PLEASING LIBERALS"

The Islamists say they made concessions to their critics. "We changed many articles to please the liberals, so we don't understand why they are staying away from the voting," said Brotherhood leader and assembly member Mohamed al-Beltagy.

The draft upholds "the principles of Islamic law" as the main source of legislation, language unchanged from the constitution that underpinned Mubarak's rule.

But it adds an article stating that Al-Azhar must be consulted on "matters related" to sharia, and another that attempts to explain what the principles of sharia are.

Gamal Eid, a human rights activist, praised some articles defending freedoms, but said others were deeply worrisome.

"The document is full of rubbery expressions like 'national morals'," he said. "It's not clear, but of course it could and would be used to crack down on activists and opposition."

While language linking women's rights to sharia was removed from the final draft, it still failed to mention women or other sections of society in an article forbidding discrimination.

"It reflects an insistence not to provide protection for women's rights in the constitution," said Heba Morayef of Human Rights Watch, who predicted that the prohibition of "insults" would have a "chilling impact on freedom of expression".

Safeguards to stop civilians from facing trial in military courts are also too weak, activists say, because the draft allows this in cases of "crimes that harm the armed forces".

The proposed constitution says the military budget is to be discussed by a newly defined national defence council that will include the president and the prime minister. But the generals will outnumber the civilians. The draft also stipulates that the minister of defence must come from the armed forces.

The president can declare war with parliament's approval, but only after consulting the national defence council.

Future presidents will have to get parliament to approve their choice of prime minister, but Nabil Abdel Fattah, an analyst at Cairo's Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said this was the only major restraint on their powers.

"The revolution erupted asking for more freedoms and a curb on the president's powers, not for a constitution that extends the previous one's restrictions on freedoms, and absolute presidential powers," he said.

(Writing by Alistair Lyon)

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