Movement on new Egyptian constitution, despite fervent opposition

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Story highlights

  • The expedited move toward a new constitution spurs a walkout by some drafters
  • President Morsy could order a referendum on the constitution in about 2 weeks
  • "The 1971 constitution was much better," a professor in Cairo says
  • Both the opposition and Muslim Brotherhood plan demonstrations Saturday

An 85-man Egyptian council worked into the morning Friday to approve what could be the country's new constitution, which some say could calm tensions but others blast for doing too little to protect freedoms.

The assembly had signed off on most of the 200-odd articles of the draft constitution by 4 a.m. Friday (9 p.m. ET Thursday). If and when the council approves the whole document, President Mohamed Morsy would set a referendum -- through which Egyptians can make the constitution official -- within about two weeks.

Islamists who dominate the group writing the constitution called for a snap vote amid widespread protests targeting Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood-backed president.

The sudden move prompted several walkouts, after which the committee appointed 11 replacements -- most of them members of the Brotherhood and allied Salafist Nour Party -- and opened discussions Thursday, anyway. Senior Morsy adviser Essam El-Erian said the rest of the constitutional assembly members would take the departing members into consideration.

But Ayman Nour, a former presidential hopeful who quit the constitutional group earlier this year, said the quick move to push through a constitution "cannot happen."

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"It would be the biggest treason in Egypt's history," Nour said.

Some have said the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to hijack the constitution less than two years after Hosni Mubarak's ouster early in the 2011 Arab Spring. Others are interpreting the vote as a way to quickly defuse anger about Morsy's recent decree granting himself expanded presidential powers.

"This could be a way for him to get out of this debacle without reversing his decree and decisions," said Aly Hassan, a judicial analyst affiliated with Egypt's Ministry of Justice.

Protesters to Morsy: Roll back your decree or leave

If the constitution passes in its current form, one expert said it would mark a step backward -- not just compared with Egypt's current situation but also compared with the three-decade rule of Mubarak, whom demonstrators criticized for being heavy-handed and suppressing opposition.

"As far as rights are concerned, the 1971 constitution was much better," said Dr. Mustapha Kamel Sayed, a Cairo University professor, referring to what the new document would replace.

Some say the constitution could lead to excessive restrictions on certain rights, moving Egypt closer to Sharia law. For some, what happens to women under the new constitution is a particular concern.

"There aren't really any protections for women," said Heba Morayef, the Egypt director for Human Rights Watch.

Opinion: A new Egypt must learn political compromise

One article that passed pertains to arbitrary arrest and detention rights. That is a sensitive topic in Egypt, as Mubarak and his loyalists were blamed for jailing and harshly mistreating innocents before and during last year's uprising.

The article says that no person may be "arrested, searched, incarcerated, deprived of freedom in any way and/or confined" unless it's ordered by a "competent judge."

Another article stipulates that anyone jailed must be told why in writing within 12 hours, and the case must go to investigators within 24 hours. Detainees cannot be interrogated without their attorney or one appointed to them being present, the article also states. Phone conversations, electronic correspondence and other communication cannot be listened to without a warrant.

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As the constitutional debate unfolded, fresh clashes broke out Thursday between rowdy protesters and police in central Cairo.

The mayhem prompted the closure of the U.S. Embassy near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the current protests and those in 2011.

They follow days of massive and sometimes violent protests against Morsy in cities across Egypt, including demonstrations Tuesday that were some of the biggest since Mubarak's ouster. One man died in those protests, officials said, and many more were arrested.

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Morsy and his backers characterize last week's decree as an attempt to preserve the fragile Arab Spring revolution that pushed Mubarak from power and led to the country's first free elections. But critics have called it an unprecedented power grab, and a Monday night statement declaring that the edict applied only to "sovereign matters" did little to defuse protesters' anger.

Brookings Institution analyst H. A. Hellyer said the sudden push to approve the constitution could be an attempt to take some of the heat off of Morsy, Egypt's first freely elected leader.

Despite the discord in the streets and critics' concerns about the constitution's drafting, Hellyer predicts it will probably pass in a referendum because many Egyptians crave stability.

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The Muslim Brotherhood has called for its own demonstration Saturday, in what would be the biggest public show of support for Morsy since he issued his controversial edict.

They will be joined on the streets Saturday by more opposition protests, if all goes to plan.

"If the (anti-Morsy) protesters can keep up the momentum for another couple of days ... that may push the presidency in an awkward position," Hellyer said.

Analysis: Morsy makes his move