Egypt's Islamists race to OK constitution

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CAIRO -- Racing against the threat of dissolution by Mubarak-appointed judges, and ignoring howls of protest from secular opponents, the Islamists drafting Egypt's new constitution prepared for a final vote today to approve a charter that human rights groups and international experts said was rushed through full of holes and ambiguities.

The result fulfilled some of the central demands of the revolution: the end of Egypt's all-powerful presidency, a stronger Parliament and bars on torture or detention without trial. But it gave Egypt's generals much of the power they had during the Hosni Mubarak era and rejected the demands of ultraconservative Salafis to impose puritanical moral codes.

The contents of the document, though, were perhaps less contentious than the context in which it was adopted. Adding to divisive atmosphere in Egypt, its passage came after almost all the delegates from secular parties and the Coptic Christians walked out and protesters took to the streets.

Dismissing the discord, President Mohammed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, said in a televised interview Thursday that he expected to call for an almost immediate referendum that would bring Egypt's chaotic political transition to a close -- "a difficult birth from the womb of an ancient nation."

"We are going to get out of this short bottleneck hugging each other," he added.

The secular opposition denounced the constitution as a blueprint for a creeping Islamist takeover. Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former U.N. diplomat, compared it to the charters that Egypt's former authoritarian rulers passed in rigged plebiscites.

"It is will not survive," he said.

The Coptic Church, whose members are believed to make up about 10 percent of Egyptians, directed its representatives on the assembly to boycott. One representative said the product represented only the Islamists who drafted it.

"Not the constitution of Egypt," the church negotiator, Kamel Saleh, told the state newspaper Al Ahram.

But several independent analysts said the hasty way in which it was prepared led to more problems than any ideological agenda. Instead of starting from scratch and drawing on the lessons of other countries, the deadline-conscious drafters tinkered with Egypt's existing constitution, without attempting to radically remake Egyptian law in any particular direction, said Ziad Al-Ali, who has tracked the assembly for the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization in Sweden.

On the question of Islamic law's place in Egyptian jurisprudence, the assembly left unchanged a longstanding article at the beginning of the text grounding Egyptian law in the "principles of Islamic law."

But in an attempted compromise between the ultraconservatives and their liberal opponents, the proposed constitution added a new article defining those principles in accordance with established schools of Sunni Muslim thought.

Some liberals expressed fear that conservatives Islamist judges and lawmakers could ultimately use the new clause to push Egypt to the right. But liberals who signed onto the compromise said the language was broad enough to give judges grounds to argue for individual rights, too.

Egypt's generals, who seized power at Mubarak's ouster and relinquished it to Mr. Morsi only in August, retain much of their power and prerogatives under the document.



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