CAIRO — Egypt’s Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly passed a rushed draft of a constitution early Friday to ease public anger against President Mohamed Morsi’s expanded powers and preempt an expected court decision to disband the chamber this weekend.
The proposed constitution states that the nation will be governed by the “principles” of Islamic law, the same wording in the charter under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak. But liberal critics argue that the language in certain articles of the constitution is open to interpretation and could allow conservative Islamists to impose a rigid version of sharia law.
The draft was quickly sent to the presidential palace in a beat-the-clock bid against an anticipated ruling by the nation’s highest court to dissolve the assembly Sunday. Morsi’s promise to protect the chamber from judicial oversight led to his decree last week to broaden his powers, which ignited protests and clashes across the country.
“May God bless us on this day,” Assembly Speaker Hossam Gheriany said before 16 hours of deliberations and voting by the assembly that stretched from Thursday to sunrise Friday, playing out in the upper house of parliament and televised to an anxious nation. Members raised hands to propose amendments; Gheriany called on others for consultations.
Eyes rolled and papers were shuffled as members argued passionately in a chamber of dark wood and gold brocade. The draft reins in the presidential authority that defined Mubarak’s police state, but it also limits the fundamentalist designs of rising ultraconservative Islamists.
Yet the debate and speeches seemed more an expedited political maneuver than a landmark moment for a nation emerging from six decades of rule by military men.
In a television interview broadcast hours before the proposed charter was approved, Morsi said his decree “will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution. There is no place for dictatorship.”
It is unlikely the demonstrations will stop even if Morsi rescinds his declaration now that he has a constitution to put to a public referendum, which could be as early as mid-December. Anger is already shifting from the decree to the constitution, which opposition leaders criticized as not reflecting the will of secularists, women, Christians and other non-Muslims.
The final draft omitted a stipulation that equality for women would be protected only if it didn’t conflict with sharia law. The charter, however, does not define discrimination by gender and states that women, not men, must balance their duties between family and work. Another article forbids the “defaming of messengers and prophets” but does not define defamation, opening the possibility of limiting freedom of expression and allowing clerics to condemn perceived “infidels.”
“I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided,” Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei earlier told a private TV channel. He added that the charter would end up becoming “part of political folklore and will go to the garbage bin of history.”
Secularists, liberals and Coptic Christians had boycotted the 100-member assembly in recent months, leaving the majority Islamists a relatively free hand to write a legal and social framework for the country that is less an original vision for a new political era than a reworking of the 1971 constitution sprinkled with Islamic references.
The draft charter states that Egypt is a Muslim nation and that — for the first time in the republic’s history — parliament must consult clerics at Al Azhar mosque, a revered institution in Sunni Islam, on legislation “related to Islamic sharia.”
Ultraconservative Islamists, known as Salafis, were pressing for the document, which contains 230 articles, to explicitly state that sharia was the “primary source” of legislation. But moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood — in a concession to liberals — opted for less strict wording and, in a number of areas, limited attempts by Salafis to imbue the charter with fundamentalist overtones.
“Having the article that says only ‘principles’ of Islamic sharia and not ‘sharia is the base of legislation’ is unacceptable,” Said Farag, a Salafi member of the Islamic Coalition for Rights Support, told the Ahram Online news website.
But a statement by the opposition National Salvation Front criticized the Islamists in the assembly for “trying to impose a constitution that is monopolized by one trend and is the furthest from national consensus, produced in a farcical way.”
The charter also suggests that Islamists were not willing to significantly curtail the power of the military, which ruled the country from Mubarak’s overthrow in February 2011 until Morsi’s election in June. The draft calls for slightly more civilian oversight of the army than the previous constitution, but it also allows the military to try civilians in a tribunal, a tactic that has drawn condemnation from human rights groups after defendants were held for months without formal charges and women were sexually abused.
The Supreme Constitutional Court was expected to rule Sunday on whether to dissolve the assembly amid accusations that it was unrepresentative. The court, dominated by Mubarak-era judges, disbanded the original assembly in April on similar grounds. The case has become a test in the separation of powers among Morsi, the courts and opposition parties over a document that sets the tone of the country’s political future.
“The only way to break the current impasse is to listen to the pulse of the street, as opposed to following a group [the Muslim Brotherhood] that has attempted to steal the revolution,” said a statement from an alliance of opposition parties. “Morsi has exceeded Mubarak by attempting to drive the country into civil war, for which only he will be held responsible.”
But there were indications early Friday that Morsi and the Brotherhood wanted to avoid bloodshed. The Brotherhood announced that a huge rally it had planned for Saturday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square — ground zero for opposition protests — would be moved.
The Brotherhood and other Islamist groups released a statement saying the venue was changed “to protect Egypt’s national interests against division and conflict.”
Times special correspondent Reem Abdellatif contributed to this report.