Egypt speeds vote on draft constitution

Assembly to vote on draft Thursday despite ongoing protests against President Morsi’s assumption of expanded power.

A divisive panel boycotted by liberals and Christians was set to rush out a draft new Egyptian constitution as protests mounted over the political future nearly two years after Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.

President Mohamed Morsi had just last week given the constituent assembly an additional two months until February to complete its work. But as protests mounted over his decision to grant himself sweeping powers until the text is ratified in a referendum, the panel wrapped up its deliberations on Wednesday and readied for a vote on Thursday.

“The discussions over the draft of the constitution will be finished today, to be followed by voting,” Amr Darrag, the panel chief, said in remarks carried by the official MENA news agency.

The vote will come amidst ongoing unrest in downtown Cairo. Egyptian police fired tear gas into Tahrir Square on Wednesday morning, where several hundred protesters spent the night after a mass rally to denounce Morsi’s assumption of expanded powers.

Clashes erupting on streets near the square spilled into the square, with canisters falling into the crowd forcing protesters to run and sending clouds of tear gas over the tents housing the demonstrators. 

The Muslim Brotherhood and allied groups plan to hold nationwide protests in support of Morsi on Saturday. Mahmoud Ghozlan, a senior Brotherhood member and spokesperson, said the rally would be held in Cairo, but did not specify an exact location. This comes after the movement cancelled a rival rally meant to be held in Cairo on Tuesday to “avoid potential unrest”.

The outskirts of the square have seen sporadic clashes now entering their ninth day, in what started as an anniversary protest to mark one year since deadly confrontations with police in the same area.

Masked protesters grabbed tear gas canisters and threw them back at police in a street close to the US embassy, near Tahrir Square.

On Tuesday, one person was killed and about a hundred people injured when an estimated 200,000 protesters packed the square, protesting against a decree issued by the new president granting himself sweeping powers.

At least 100 people were injured in Tuesday’s nationwide demonstrations, including 21 in Cairo, the health ministry said.

Rallies were staged in most of Egypt’s 27 provinces. In the Mediterranean city of Alexandria protesters attacked the local office of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood movement, while in Mahalla, north of Cairo, anti-Morsi protesters held a large rally.

At least three people have died in one week of protests and clashes against Morsi’s decree.

Judges critical

The Egyptian protesters are angry at the decree that Morsi announced last Thursday allowing him to “issue any decision or law that is final and not subject to appeal”, which in effect placed him beyond judicial scrutiny.

The decree put him on a collision course with the judiciary and consolidated the long-divided opposition which accuses him of taking on dictatorial powers.

The demonstrations come a day after Morsi stuck by his decree after a meeting with the country’s top judges aimed at defusing the crisis.

The head of the assembly drafting Egypt’s new constitution said the final draft would be finished on Wednesday, and three other members of the assembly told Reuters the document would be put to a vote on Thursday.

“We will start now and finish today, God willing,” Hossam el-Gheriyani, the assembly speaker, said at the start of a
meeting of the constitutional assembly in Cairo. He said Thursday would be a “great day”, without elaborating, and
called on the members who had withdrawn from the body to return.

The draft has been wildly unpopular with liberals, human rights activists and others for a range of provisions dealing with the role of religion in the state, the status of women, and the privileges accorded to the country’s powerful army. Senior officials said on Thursday that the constitution would include a provision allowing civilians to face military trials, and shielding the military budget from parliamentary scrutiny.

There has been “no change to the constitutional declaration”, presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told reporters at the end of the meeting.

But he added Morsi sought to clarify that any irrevocable decisions apply only to issues related “to his sovereign powers” and stressed the temporary nature of the decree.

The head of the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – the Brotherhood’s political arm – said the meeting between Morsi and the judges had been “fruitful”. But judges said the crisis was not over.

“The meeting failed,” Judge Abdel Rahman Bahlul, who attended the talks, told the independent daily Al-Masry Al-Youm.

“We cannot say this is the end of the crisis between the judiciary and the presidency,” another judge who attended the talks, Judge Ahmed Abdel Rahman, told the paper.

Source: News Agencies