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Egypt panel votes on divisive charter

An Egyptian panel was rushing through on Thursday approval of a new constitution at the centre of a political crisis pitting the Islamist president against the opposition, which has threatened more protests.

By early evening, the constituent assembly, which has been boycotted by liberals and Christians, had approved almost half of the 234 articles, including an unanimous decision to retain the principles of Islamic law as the main source of legislation.

“We want a constitution we agree on,” said assembly chief Hossam al-Gheriani, adding that the panel had been “awaiting” boycotting members even as it went to the vote.

The opposition, which has mobilised unprecedented rallies since Morsi assumed broad powers last week, accuses the president and allies in the constituent assembly of railroading the charter through for a quick referendum.

The constitution will replace the one suspended after president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in early 2011.

Once it has been approved by the panel, it will be sent to Morsi, who must call a referendum on it, with one advisor saying that might happen within two weeks.

The opposition mostly disagreed with the rushed manner in which the assembly was operating and opposes some of of the draft charter’s provisions on rights and freedoms.

Christians objected to an article, yet to be approved, that seeks to narrow the meaning of “the principles of Islamic law” to the tenets of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt directors, said some of the draft articles on freedom of expression and religion resemble a “penal code.”

“Some of the provisions are penal code provisions. You don’t list all the things that you are not allowed to do, you’re supposed to set up the rights and limitations,” she said.

Particularly worrisome was the limitation of religious freedom to followers of Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), Morayef said, which would exclude minorities such as Bahais that have been persecuted in Egypt.

“They have added language that is problematic to freedom of expression. You cannot ‘insult a human,’ which is very broad. It can be used to censor criticism of the president,” she said.

A number of private newspapers announced that they would not appear on the street on Tuesday to protest what they consider to be a lack of press guarantees in the new charter.

Abdallah Sennawi, a member of the Committee to Defend Freedom of Expression and Thought, said private television channels would follow suit on Wednesday.

Morsi’s decree, described by the opposition as dictatorial, stripped courts of the right to annul the controversial constituent assembly ahead of an expected court ruling on Sunday.

It shields Morsi’s decisions from review by the judiciary, which he and his movement believe retains Mubarak-era appointees who are opposed to the Islamists.

The top Cassation Court has suspended work to protest the decree, which will expire once the constitution is ratified.

Morsi and his supporters argue that delaying the constitution, which would be followed by parliamentary elections to replace the Islamist-dominated house dissolved by a court earlier this year, would delay democratic transition.

The assembly, dominated by Islamists, had announced on Wednesday it would vote on the charter the following day, to the shock of opposition groups holding out that Morsi would try to reconcile after a massive Tuesday rally.

Morsi allowed the assembly a further two months after its mid-December deadline to finish the charter, making the quick vote even more of a surprise to the opposition.

Opposition groups said they would march on Friday to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where dozens of protesters say they will remain camped out until Morsi reverses his decree.

One protester, Tamer Harby, aged 30, said the “Muslim Brotherhood are making their constitution, not Egypt’s.”

Minor skirmishes persisted on Thursday between some protesters and police near the square. At least three protesters have been killed in country-wide unrest since the decree.

For its part, the Muslim Brotherhood said it plans a pro-Morsi demo on Saturday, but that it will not be held in Tahrir Square to avoid any confrontation.

In a pre-recorded interview broadcast on Thursday night, Morsi repeated that the new powers he had assumed were temporary.

“This is an exceptional stage; we are in a transitional phase,” Morsi told state television. “This constitutional declaration is temporary, and it will end once the people have approved the constitution.”

Source:  AFP