Egypt's constitutional panel holds final meeting

Associated Press
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A protester is enveloped in tear gas fired by riot police to disperse a demonstration in Alexandria, Egypt, Monday, Dec. 2, 2013. Black clad riot police fired tear and chased dozens of rights activists and protesters who held a demonstration in the Mediterranean city demanding abolishing a new law that extensively restricted the right to hold a protest, imposing fines and jail terms on violators.(AP Photo/Heba Khamis)

CAIRO (AP) — A mostly liberal panel has completed amending Egypt's constitution passed last year under now-ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi, setting the stage for a national referendum seen as a key, but contentious step in the country's transition.

Egypt's interim government, installed by the military after it removed Morsi in July, is touting the new document as paving the way for a new political system it hopes will calm months of turmoil. If the charter is adopted in a referendum, the next steps will be parliamentary and presidential elections in the spring and summer of 2014.

But the referendum, likely in January, is expected to stoke protests by Islamist supporters of Morsi, who reject the post-coup government. The final draft of the amended constitution has also drawn opposition from some secular pro-democracy activists because it enshrines greater power for the military.

Authorities are hoping the new constitution will be approved in the referendum by a higher percentage and stonger turnout than the Morsi-era document, as a show of legitimacy of the post-coup system. The Morsi-era constitution, drafted by a panel dominated by Islamists, was passed in December 2012 with about 64 percent of the vote, but at lowly turnout rate of little more than 30 percent.

A 50-member panel appointed by the government completed voting clause by clause on the final draft late Sunday.

On Monday, members of the panel met in a televised session in which they lavished praise on the document and pledged to do more to help Egypt through its bumpy transition to democracy.

"It is now the right of every Egyptian to declare that this is their constitution," said Anba Paula, the representative of the Coptic Orthodox Church on the panel.

Another member, veteran lawyer and head of the Bar Association Sameh Ashour said: "This constitution may not reflect the expectations of all Egyptians, but it is a safety valve for the revolution at this transitional phase."

The panel will now submit the draft to the interim president, Adly Mansour, who is to announce a date for the referendum.

The panel is dominated by secular-leaning figures. But it includes several Islamists, including one from an ultraconservative party, and representatives from Al-Azhar, Sunni Islam's foremost seat of learning, and Christian churches.

Mohammed Ibrahim Mansour, representative of the ultraconservative Nour party, said the document struck a good balance between the teachings of Islam and civil freedoms.

Activists from Tamarod, a youth movement that rallied millions of Egyptians demanding that Morsi step down ahead of the July coup, also sat on the panel, which held its final deliberations in private but the voting on Saturday and Sunday was televised live.

Mahmoud Badr of Tamarod said his movement will return to the streets to rally a "yes" vote on the new charter. Another member, film director Khaled Youssef, said the panel should now work as a body promoting national unity and working to safeguard the alliance of liberal and secular groups that supported Morsi's ouster.

The draft leaves uncertain which would be called first after its adoption — the parliament elections or presidential election. It says only the first must be held within 90 days of its adoption, with the next within six months after.

The ambivalence is thought to be designed to give Mansour legal leeway to decide which to call first, though the original roadmap for the transition set by the military after Morsi's ouster called for parliamentary first.

The charter requires presidents to declare their financial assets annually, and empowers lawmakers to vote out an elected president with a two-third majority. It also bans parties founded on religion or sect and unequivocally states the equality of men and women. It also guarantees the rights of Egyptians with special needs and the elderly.

But it also leaves the military with unfettered freedom to choose the country's defense minister from within its ranks and grants him immunity for two, four-year presidential terms.