Tensions rise over new law in Egypt

Police, protesters brace for clashes

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CAIRO — Tensions heightened in advance of massive anti-government protests scheduled for Friday and Saturday after an Islamist-controlled panel hurriedly approved Thursday a final draft of Egypt’s constitution that, among its new dictates, would grant Muslim clerics a role in interpreting some legal matters — angering critics and worrying minorities in this secular Islamic nation.

Observers feared an outbreak in violence between protesters and supporters of President Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist political movement that has planned a large pro-government demonstration for Saturday.

“I’m very concerned about this coming Saturday,” said Emad Mohammed Fawzy, a 31-year-old taxi driver in Cairo. “The president’s supporters and opponents can’t be in the same place. It will be a massacre.”

Several clashes between police and protesters have erupted this week, leaving at least one demonstrator dead and hundreds injured in violence reminiscent of Egypt’s 2011 uprising that ousted longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak. A rally Tuesday in Tahrir Square — the birthplace of the Egyptian revolution – drew hundreds of thousands of protesters.

Conflict has boiled over in the week since Mr. Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, granted himself near-absolute power and impunity from review by the judiciary, the only branch of government not dominated by the Islamists.

“The power of the president has not been decreased as was hoped for,” Mazen Hassan, a political science lecturer at Cairo University, said of the new constitution. “[It] will give him not only total executive power, but also the right to intervene in legislative power.”

The 85-member panel that approved the constitution — known as the Constituent Assembly and composed mostly of Morsi allies — carried out its vote before Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court rules Sunday on whether to dissolve the assembly. No liberals, secularists or Christians took part in drafting the document.

‘This is uncharted territory’

Shariah, or Islamic, law has been enshrined as the foundation of the Egyptian legal system since 1971, and the draft constitution retains that principle.

But new articles state that various Islamic texts must be consulted in the legislative process and Egypt’s most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must advise on matters related to Shariah.

Such provisions have sparked concerns about the advent of an authoritarian Islamist regime, even though Mr. Morsi initially cast himself as a moderate and the leader of a broad, inclusive coalition.

“Liberal forces see that the current phrasing in the constitution gives a huge role for religious texts in legislation,” Mr. Hassan said. “The fact that there is no consensus over what these religious texts actually mean complicates the process and will mean, the liberals fear, adding an Islamist flavor to the legislative process in the future.”

Some say that trumpeting Islamic law is a populist move, particularly in rural and impoverished sections of society.

“It is usually very poor people from rural areas who see it as a solution, but if you ask them what it means, they don’t know,” said Said Sadek, professor of political sociology at the American University in Cairo. “They think Allah will save them.”

Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the History Department at American University in Cairo, said the constitution’s provisions are “not very clear yet. This is unchartered territory, something that will have to be worked out.”

“But I believe it isn’t clear in [the Muslim Brotherhood‘s] mind,” Mr. Fahmy said. “My suspicion is that this is not about rule of law. It is about identity.

“The argument is that your legal system is inauthentic; it is borrowed for Western legal codes and we have to replace it with something derived from Shariah,” he said. “I dispute this, but for argument’s sake – what do you actually mean in practice? I don’t think they have an answer.”

Concerns and contradictions

After several groups withdrew from the Constituent Assembly, analysts said, women and religious minorities feared that the new government was pushing aside their interests.

Heba Morayef, Egypt director at Human Rights Watch, said she was initially encouraged by the scrapping of a provision from the old constitution that allowed equality between men and women only when it did not conflict with Shariah law.

But she added that it is worrying that the general clause against discrimination no longer specifies grounds such as gender or race.

“I actually think it’s problematic that they removed sex as one of the grounds,” Ms. Morayef said. “There is not a single provision that addresses women’s rights or gender.”

There are also concerns over the power of the military, which critics say the draft constitution does little to hold in check. In particular, the constitution continues to allow civilians to be tried by military courts.

“There has been zero push-back against the powers of the military in this respect, and I think that’s a huge missed opportunity and real lack of courage on the part of Constituent Assembly members,” Ms. Morayef said.

Analysts said this could indicate the Muslim Brotherhood’s desire to keep the military on the Brotherhood side.

“If you look at the way in which the Brotherhood appear to be bending over to accommodate the military, certainly [it’s] to keep the military on its side,” said David Hartwell, a Middle East analyst for Jane’s Defense Weekly in London. “Indeed, the very fact that the constitution is being rushed through to avoid judicial challenge, all of this looks like an attempt by the Brotherhood to solidify its rule on Egypt and dictate the path of the constitutional process going forward.”

Others say the draft constitution is contradictory. While one article guarantees freedom of expression, another forbids insulting the prophets or “any human being.”

In addition, the speed with which the constitution is being pushed through means that few Egyptians have read it.

The constitution will be put to a public vote that is expected to take place before the end of the year.

But there is concern that few in the electorate will be well-informed about what they are voting on.

“A lot of people in the Brotherhood and outside do not understand the constitution; nobody knows what it means,” said Salah Abdullah, 54, who works in a Cairo furniture store.

Ruby Russell reported from London. Sumi Somaskanda in Berlin contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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