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Egyptian Islamists fast-track draft constitution

Members of Egypt’s constituent assembly discuss a new draft constitution in Cairo on Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012.


Egypt's constitutional assembly hurriedly approved a draft of the country's new constitution early Friday, enshrining a specific version of sharia law as the guiding principle of the country's legislation and setting the stage for a national referendum on a document that could transform the country.

Drawn up and voted on by a mostly Islamist committee, the draft constitution will – if approved by the Egyptian people – become the guiding document of the Arab world's most populous country and help legitimize Egypt's embattled President.

Despite objections from many Egyptian opposition parties and human-rights activists over the constitution's ambiguous wording, it now arrives at the desk of President Mohammed Morsi. Within two weeks, Mr. Morsi will put the constitution to a national referendum – the final step before ratification.

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In a victory for Islamists, Article 2 of the draft constitution establishes the principles of sharia law as the primary guide for legislation, and Article 219 goes even further, specifying the Sunni branch of Islamic jurisprudence as the foundation of sharia law. Religious considerations feature heavily throughout the document, including in a clause that prohibits insulting any prophets of the Abrahamic faiths.

In a marathon session that started Thursday morning and dragged into early Friday, the assembly charged with producing Egypt's next constitution voted on the more than 230 articles that make up the document – part of a fast-tracking strategy that aims to have a draft of the constitution on the President's desk by Saturday.

By fast-tracking, Mr. Morsi may have found a way out of the past week's crisis, which saw hundred of thousands of people take to the street in opposition to him.

The protests began after Mr. Morsi issued a series of decrees last week that gave him and the constitutional assembly unchecked powers for as long as it takes to produce a constitution. Many groups opposed to Mr. Morsi and his allies within the Muslim Brotherhood found common ground in opposing the decrees, labelling them a power grab and Mr. Morsi a dictator.

However, once the constitution is finalized, the unchecked powers Mr. Morsi announced for himself last week become void, rendering moot the central source of frustration for many of the President's opponents. The constitutional assembly, to which Mr. Morsi also granted unchecked powers, also ceases to exist once the constitution is finalized.

Still, some of the ill will Mr. Morsi generated among his opponents over the past week will likely linger long after the constitution itself is completed. While some activists expressed disappointment with many articles of the constitution, far more were angry at the way Mr. Morsi and his allies within the Muslim Brotherhood went about creating the document.

"This process alienates millions," said Adel Ramadan of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, an independent rights group.

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"It shouldn't be based on a majority vote because a constitutional assembly process is different from a parliamentary process."

On Thursday, 85 assembly members arrived to vote, article-by-article, on the more than 230 articles of the draft constitution. The heavily male, heavily Islamist assembly was missing many of its liberal, secular and Christian members.

Also on Thursday, in an interview broadcast on Egyptian state television, Mr. Morsi sought to portray himself as a populist and protector of the country's constitution, frequently referring to all Egyptians as his children.

"I'm very happy that we Egyptians have a great chance to say what we want," he said, referring to the ongoing protests sparked by his recent decrees. "But while we do that, whether we are for or against, we must take care of our country."

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