Tens of thousands of protesters have rallied in central Cairo, continuing more than a week of demonstrations against new powers assumed by the president and the drafting of a constitution seen by many as undermining basic freedoms.
“Down with the constituent assemby,” the crowd chanted, referring to the 100-member body that drafted the document, which was approved after a 20-hour vote on Thursday night and Friday morning.
President Mohamed Morsi issued a decree last week that gave the panel an additional two months to finish its work. It also granted him wide-ranging power to issue decrees which would not be subject to judicial review.
But the assembly unexpectedly decided to vote on a draft constitution this week, with critics of the government accusing the panel of rushing its work.
Banners condemned a “dictatorial Morsi,” while protesters shouted “down with the rule of the guide,” a reference to Mohamed Badie, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Morsi was a member of the organisation but resigned his membership after being elected.
Leading liberal politicians, including Hamdeen Sabbahi, who came third in this year’s presidential election, and Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, visited Tahrir Square on Friday night and vowed to sleep there.
“The revolution is back … we shall be victorious,” Sabbahi said. “We are united against the oppressive regime.”
‘Huge problems down the road’
Nearly two dozen members of the assembly, including liberals and representatives from the Coptic Church, have withdrawn from the assembly in recent weeks.
Activists have criticised the document for failing to protect the rights of women and religious minorities.
The document also includes provisions that allow civilians to be prosecuted by military tribunals, and shield the army’s budget from parliamentary oversight.
“Rushing through a draft while serious concerns about key rights protections remain unaddressed will create huge problems down the road that won’t be easy to fix,” said Joe Stork, the director of US-based Human Rights Watch, which has been critical of the document for months.
In the session’s final hours, several new articles were hastily written to resolve lingering issues.
One significant change would reduce the size of the Supreme Constitutional Court by nearly a third, to 11 judges, removing several younger judges who have been critical of the Brotherhood.
The judiciary has emerged as a major source of opposition to Morsi’s presidency.
But despite the public opposition, the Brotherhood – by far the best-organised political movement in Egypt – is confident that the constitution will ultimately be approved.
Hossam al-Ghairyani, the head of the assembly, said a delegation would visit Morsi on Saturday to present him with the draft constitution. A public referendum on the text is expected within two weeks.
“This constitution represents the diversity of the Egyptian people,” said Essam el-Erian, a senior member of the Brotherhood.
“We will implement the work of this constitution to hold in high esteem God’s law, which was only ink on paper before, and to protect freedoms that were not previously respected.”
‘Declaration is temporary’
In an interview with state television aired on Thursday night, Morsi said it was necessary to speed up passage of the constitution in order to end Egypt’s transitional period.
He also promised that his new found legislative powers would end after the referendum.
The elected parliament was dissolved by court order earlier this year; new parliamentary elections will be held once the constitution is approved.
“This constitutional declaration is temporary, and it will end once the people have approved the constitution,” Morsi said.
Protesters and police have clashed daily in the capital since the decree was issued. At least three people have been killed in nationwide unrest.
The Brotherhood and other groups have organised a rally in support of Morsi on Saturday.
They initially planned to hold it in Tahrir Square, but moved the venue amidst concerns that it would turn violent.
Demonstrators will instead rally at Cairo University.