Egyptian constitution goes before government assembly

Thursday 29 November 2012 22.24
Allies of President Mohammed Mursi, fast-tracked the vote
Allies of President Mohammed Mursi, fast-tracked the vote

Mohammed Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood has begun pushing through a new constitution that will transform Egypt.

It is hoped that it will end a crisis which erupted when the Islamist president gave himself sweeping new powers last week.

President Mursi said his decree halting court challenges to his decisions, which provoked protests and violence from Egyptians fearing the emergence of a new dictator less than two years after they ousted Hosni Mubarak, was "for an exceptional stage".

Speaking on state television President Mursi said:"It will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution, he said: “There is no place for dictatorship."

The Islamist-dominated assembly was expected to finish approving the draft constitution tomorrow, allowing a referendum to be held as soon as mid-December.

Mr Mursi's opponents have attacked it as an attempt to rush through a text.

They say the constitution has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Mursi for president in June elections, and its allies.

Two people have been killed and hundreds injured in the protests since last Thursday's decree, which deepened the divide between the newly-empowered Islamists and their opponents.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies have called for pro-Mursi rallies on Saturday.

Officials from the Brotherhood's party changed the venue and said they would avoid Tahrir Square, where a sit-in by the president's opponents entered a seventh day today.

Seeking to calm protesters, Mr Mursi said he welcomed opposition but it should not divide Egyptians and there was no place for violence. "I am very happy that Egypt has real political opposition," he said.

He stressed the need to attract investors and tourists to Egypt, where the crisis threatens to derail some early signs of an economic recovery after two years of turmoil.

Egypt's benchmark stock index fell on Thursday to a 20-week-month low.

An alliance of Egyptian opposition groups pledged to keep up protests and said broader civil disobedience was possible to fight what it described as an attempt to "kidnap Egypt from its people".

Eleven Egyptian newspapers plan not to publish on Tuesday in protest at Mr Mursi's decree, one reported.

Al-Masry Al-Youm also said three privately owned satellite channels would not broadcast on Wednesday in protest.

The plebiscite is a gamble based on the Islamists' belief that they can mobilise voters again after winning all elections held since Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011.

"May God bless us on this day," Hossam el-Gheriyani, the speaker of the constituent assembly, told members at the start of the session to vote on each of the 234 articles in the draft, which will go to Mr Mursi for approval and then to the plebiscite.

The legitimacy of the constitutional assembly has been called into question by a series of court cases demanding its dissolution.

Its standing has also suffered from the withdrawal of members including church representatives of the Christian minority and liberals.

The Brotherhood argues that approval of the constitution in a referendum would bury all arguments about both the legality of the assembly and the text it has written in the last six months.

Mr Mursi is expected to approve the adopted draft at the weekend.

He must then call the referendum within 15 days.

If Egyptians approve the constitution, legislative powers will pass straight from Mr Mursi to the upper house of parliament, in line with an article in the new constitution, assembly members said.

The draft injects new Islamic references into Egypt's system of government but keeps in place an article defining "the principles of sharia" as the main source of legislation - the same phrase found in the previous constitution.