GIANT CROWDS OF protesters packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square and marched in other cities Friday vowing to stop a draft constitution that Islamist allies of President Mohammed Morsi approved hours earlier in a rushed, all-night session without the participation of liberals and Christians.
Anger at Morsi even spilled over into a mosque where the Islamist president joined weekly Friday prayers. In his sermon, the mosque’s preacher compared Morsi to Islam’s Prophet Muhammad, saying the prophet had enjoyed vast powers as leader, giving a precedent for the same to happen now.
“No to tyranny!” congregants chanted, interrupting the cleric. Morsi took to the podium and told the worshippers that he too objected to the language of the sheik and that one-man rule contradicts Islam.
Crowds of protesters marched from several locations in Cairo, converging in central Tahrir Square for the opposition’s second mass rally in a week against Morsi. They chanted, “Constitution: Void!” and “The people want to bring down the regime” as fireworks went off.
The crowd appeared comparable in size to the more than 200,000 anti-Morsi protesters who thronged Tahrir on Tuesday. Tens of thousands more marched Friday in Alexandria and other cities.
In contrast to the largely leaderless uprising by youth activists against autocrat Hosni Mubarak last year, a more energized, cohesive leadership has started to emerge in the new campaign against Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected president. It is made up of a number of prominent liberal, secular and moderate Islamist politicians, notably reform advocate Mohamed ElBaradei.
“We are determined to continue with all peaceful means, whatever it takes to defend our legitimate rights,” ElBaradei told the Tahrir crowd, saying the draft constitution must be voided.
His ally, senior opposition leader Hamdeen Sabbahi, vowed protests would go on until “we topple the constitution.”
“The revolution is back … We shall be victorious,” said Sabbahi, a liberal politician who came in a surprisingly close third in last summer’s presidential election. “We are united against the oppressive regime.”
The protests were sparked by the president’s decrees a week ago granting himself sweeping powers and neutralizing the judiciary, the last check on his authority. The edicts tapped into a feeling among many Egyptians that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, from which he hails, are using their election victories to monopolize power and set up a new one-party state, nearly two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
But the sudden adoption of a draft constitution by the Islamist-dominated assembly tasked with producing the document throws the confrontation into a new phase.
The draft must now be put to a nationwide referendum for public approval, likely to be held in mid-December. Morsi is expected on Saturday to announce the date. He says his new powers are in effect until the referendum passes.
The opposition appeared determined to launch a street campaign aimed at blocking the document from coming to a referendum.
They are also counting on a revolt by the judiciary, where opposition to Morsi’s edicts runs strong. The Supreme Constitutional Court is to rule on Sunday whether to dissolve the constitutional assembly. If it does so, the effect on the draft already adopted by the assembly is unclear. In part it may be a question of whose legitimacy is stronger and whose public support is larger.
If the charter does come to a referendum, the opposition is faced with the choice of boycotting in protest or trying to rally the public to vote to reject the draft.
In every scenario, Egypt’s most polarizing and volatile crisis since Mubarak’s ouster is likely to deepen. The past week, clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents left two dead and hundreds wounded and raised fears of further chaos.
The Brotherhood and other Islamists plan their own massive rally backing Morsi on Saturday. Already on Friday, Brotherhood activists were passing out fliers calling for the public to come out and “support Islamic law.” A number of Muslim clerics in Friday sermons in the southern city of Assiut called the president’s opponents “thugs” and “enemies of God and Islam.”
The draft constitution has an Islamist bent. It strengthens provisions that set Islamic law as the basis of legislation, gives clerics a still undefined role in ensuring laws meet Shariah and commits the state to enforce morals and “the traditional family” in broad language that rights activists fear could be used to severely limit many civil liberties.
At the same time, it installs new protections for Egyptians against some abuses of the Mubarak era, such as stronger bans on torture and arbitrary arrest. It weakens somewhat what had been the near total powers of the presidency, giving parliament greater authorities.
Almost all liberal and secular members of the assembly had quit in the past weeks to protest what they called Islamists’ hijacking of the drafting process.
No Christians or liberals
As a result, 85 members — almost all Islamists, with no Christians — participated in the session that began Thursday. The voting, which had not been expected for another two months, was hastily moved up to approve the draft before the Constitutional Court rules Sunday.
Racing against the clock, the members voted article by article for 16 hours on the draft’s more than 230 articles, passing them all by large margins.
The rush resulted in a process that at times appeared slap-dash. Assembly head Hossam al-Ghiryani doggedly pushed the members to finish.
When one article received 16 objections, he pointed out that would require postponing the vote 48 hours under the body’s rules. “Now I’m taking the vote again,” he said, and all but four members dropped their objections.
In the session’s final hours, several new articles were hastily written up and swiftly voted on to resolve lingering issues. One significant change would reduce the size of the Supreme Constitutional Court by nearly a third to 11 judges, removing several younger, sharply anti-Brotherhood judges.
The voting ended just after sunrise Friday, to a round of applause from the members.
“This constitution represents the diversity of the Egyptian people. All Egyptians, male and female, will find themselves in this constitution,” declared Essam el-Erian, a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood.
But the opposition denounced the vote as a farce.
Among the protesters in Tahrir on Friday, Salwa Mustafa said the constitution was “cooked up.”
Her daughter, Basma Mohieddin, who was marching with her, added, “We must not let this charter reach the referendum because you know that people are easily fooled. We have to stop it right now and cancel it.”
Speaking in an interview on state TV aired late Thursday, Morsi said the constitution’s swift passage was necessary to get Egypt through a transitional period in which there has been no elected lower house of parliament. The courts dissolved the Brotherhood-led lower house elected last winter.
“The most important thing of this period is that we finish the constitution, so that we have a parliament under the constitution, elected properly, an independent judiciary, and a president who executes the law,” Morsi said.
Rights group Amnesty International said Friday that the adopted text of the constitution has provisions that purport to protect rights but instead “mask new restrictions.”
As in past constitutions, the new draft said the “principles of Islamic law” will be the basis of law.
Previously, the term “principles” allowed wide leeway in interpreting Shariah. But in the draft, a separate new article is added that seeks to define “principles” by pointing to particular theological doctrines and their rules. That could give Islamists the tool for insisting on stricter implementation of rulings of Shariah.
Another new article states that Egypt’s most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah, a measure critics fear will lead to oversight of legislation by clerics.
The draft also includes bans on “insulting or defaming all prophets and messengers” or even “insulting humans” — broad language that analysts warned could be used to crack down on many forms of speech.
The draft says citizens are equal under the law but an article specifically establishing women’s equality was dropped because of disputes over the phrasing.
One article underlines that the state will protect “the true nature of the Egyptian family … and promote its morals and values.” The phrasing suggests the state could prevent anything deemed to undermine the family.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region, said the document “blocks the path to equality between men and women. It is appalling that virtually the only references to women relate to the home and family.”