Amr Moussa

Amr Moussa, center, the chairman of Egypt's 50-member panel responsible for amending the country's Islamist-drafted constitution, arranges the members for a group picture in Cairo after finishing the final draft of a series of constitutional amendments. (Amr Nabil / Associated Press / December 2, 2013)

CAIRO -- What’s in a word? A lot, if it’s a last-minute change to the draft of Egypt’s new constitution.

Two members of the panel appointed by the government to rewrite the national charter said an alteration was made after the final draft had been voted on by the committee. The document is to be put to a nationwide referendum next month.

The change -- amending the phrase “civilian rule” to “civilian government.” -- might not seem like much. But that wording has been contentious in the past.

The term “civilian rule” is supported by secular liberals, because it is meant to prevent either religious or military figures from taking charge of the state. The wording of “civilian government” is considered less broad-brush, because in Egypt the Cabinet is equated with the government. So it leaves an opening for key non-Cabinet posts to be filled by religious or military officials.

The two panel members who disclosed the change after the version was read out in public were Bishop Antonious, representing the Roman Catholic Church, and Mohamed Abul-Ghar, head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

The bishop told the Ahram website that the committee head, Amr Moussa, appeared to stumble over the term when he read the preamble aloud. Abdul-Ghar said members did not see the revised wording in print until committee members got cleaned-up versions of the draft days after the vote -- during a dinner reception hosted by the armed forces.

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Hassan is a special correspondent.