CAIRO - An Islamist-led assembly finalized a new
constitution early on Friday aimed at transforming Egypt and paving the
way for an end to a crisis that erupted when President Mohamed Morsi
gave himself sweeping new powers last week.
Morsi said his decree halting court challenges to his decisions,
which provoked protests and violence from Egyptians fearing a new
dictator was emerging less than two years after they ousted Hosni
Mubarak, was "for an exceptional stage."
"It will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution," he told
state television on Thursday night. "There is no place for
The assembly concluded the vote after a session that lasted 19 hours,
approving all articles including presidential powers, the status of
Islam, the military's role and the extent to which human rights will be
respected in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.
The final draft contains historic changes to Egypt's system of
government. It limits to eight years the amount of time a president can
serve, for example. Mubarak was in power for three decades. It also
introduces a degree of oversight over the military establishment -
though not enough for critics.
President Morsi is expected to ratify the document by Saturday,
allowing a referendum to be held as soon as mid-December on a text the
Islamists say reflects Egypt's new freedoms.
"We have finished working on Egypt's constitution. We will call the
president today (Friday) at a reasonable hour to inform him that the
assembly has finished its task and the project of the constitution is
completed," said Hossam el-Gheriyani, head of the assembly in a live
broadcast of the session.
The vote was often interrupted by bickering between the mostly
Islamist members and Gheriyani over the document's articles. Several
articles were amended on the spot before they were voted on.
"This is a revolutionary constitution," Gheriyani said, asking
members of the assembly to launch a cross-country campaign to "explain
to our nation its constitution," added Gheriyani, after which Egypt's
national anthem was played.
Gheriyani said the assembly would continue its work in an
administrative capacity to prepare for the popular referendum that Morsi
is to call for after reading the finalized draft.
Morsi's critics argue it is an attempt to rush through a draft they
say has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, which backed Morsi 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.
Setting the stage for more tension, the Muslim Brotherhood and its
Islamist allies have called for pro-Morsi rallies on Saturday. But
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 an eighth day on Friday.
Seeking to calm protesters, Morsi 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 four-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 to protest
Morsi's decree, one reported. Al-Masry Al-Youm, one of Egypt's most
widely read daily newspapers, 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," 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 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.
Morsi 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 Morsi 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
Among other historic changes to Egypt's system of government, it caps
the amount of time a president can serve at two terms, or eight years.
Mubarak ruled for three decades. It also introduces a measure of
civilian oversight - not nearly enough for the critics - over the
The president can declare war with parliament's approval, but only
after consulting a national defense council with a heavy military and
security membership, effectively giving the army a say. That element was
not in the old constitution, used when Egypt was ruled by ex-military
Activists highlighted other flaws such as worrying articles pertaining to the rights of women and freedom of speech.
"There are some good pro-freedoms articles, but there are also
catastrophic articles like one that prevents insults. This could be used
against journalists criticizing the president or state officials," said
human rights activist Gamal Eid.
"We wanted Egyptians to get more freedoms and less presidential
powers and were unhappy with the end result in those areas," said Edward
Ghaleb, who had been sitting on the assembly as a representative of the
Coptic Orthodox church.
New parliamentary elections cannot happen until the constitution is
passed. Egypt has been without an elected legislature since the
Islamist-dominated lower house was dissolved in June.
"The secular forces and the church and the judges are not happy with
the constitution; the journalists are not happy, so I think this will
increase tensions in the country," said Mustapha Kamal Al-Sayyid, a
professor of political science at Cairo University. "I don't know how
the referendum can be organized if the judges are upset," he added.
Egyptian elections are overseen by the judiciary.
The decree issued by Morsi worsened already tetchy relations with
judges, many of whom saw it as a threat to their independence. Two
courts declared a strike on Wednesday.