Egypt constitution

In an image from Egyptian state TV, constitutional committee Chairman Amr Moussa, left, announces the date for a referendum on a new constitution as interim President Adly Mansour listens. (AFP/Getty Images / December 14, 2013)

CAIRO — Egyptians will vote next month on a rewritten constitution, interim President Adly Mansour announced Saturday, opening what could be a contentious new political chapter for the country.

The referendum, to be held over two days beginning Jan. 14, is described by the interim government as a crucial step to restoring democracy in Egypt. Presidential and parliamentary elections are also to be held next year.

Egypt has been roiled for months by confrontations between supporters of deposed Islamist President Mohamed Morsi and backers of the Egyptian army, which removed Morsi from power in July after massive protests demanding his ouster. An ongoing crackdown on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood has left some 1,300 people dead and thousands more in jail, according to human rights groups.

Morsi himself is jailed and facing an array of charges. His trial, which began in November, is to resume next month.

The announcement of the referendum date was a carefully orchestrated affair, meant to deliver an explicit message of national unity. Mansour’s speech was carried on state television, with senior political, military and religious figures in attendance.

A 50-member panel had spent months working on the draft document, which has gotten something of a mixed reception. Morsi’s followers have declared the entire process invalid. Human rights groups have welcomed provisions enhancing some individual freedoms, but noted the considerable gap between those ideals and the practices of the current authoritarian-minded government.

More worryingly to some, the revised constitution expands the already considerable powers of the army, whose chief, Gen. Abdel-Fattah Sisi, has effectively been in charge since Morsi’s ouster. Under the new constitution, senior military officials would have to approve the appointment of the defense minister for the next eight years, rather than civilian leaders having the last word. The charter also allows the army to keep many aspects of its finances a secret and permits some civilian trials before military tribunals.

The draft constitution replaces an unpopular charter implemented in 2012 under Morsi. It was put to a nationwide vote and won a solid 64% approval, but with only about one-third of Egyptian voters turning out. Some heavy-handedly Islamist provisions were removed in the new version.

The interim government is hoping not only for the expected approval of the document, but for a larger turnout than in the previous referendum.

Without mentioning the Muslim Brotherhood by name, Mansour appealed to Morsi’s backers not to turn the referendum run-up into a fresh battleground. “Hatred is a tool of destruction,” he said.  

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laura.king@latimes.com

@laurakingLAT