Haitham El-Tabei | AFP
Published — Saturday 30 November 2013
Last update 1 December 2013 1:02 pm
CAIRO: An Egyptian panel began voting Saturday on a new constitution intended to pave the way for a return to elected rule after July’s military overthrow of Islamist president Muhammad Mursi.
If adopted, the charter will be put to a popular referendum early next year in the first milestone of the military-installed government’s transition roadmap, to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in mid-2014.
Voting on the 247 articles began with 48 members of the 50-member panel attending Saturday’s session, and was expected to continue on Sunday, said Amr Mussa, the head of the panel and former foreign minister under Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled by a pro-democracy uprising in 2011.
Forty-five members approved article two in the constitution, which stipulates that Islamic sharia law will be the main source of legislation. This clause has been retained from the Mubarak-era constitution.
After the army ousted Mursi in July, Egypt’s interim rulers suspended the 2012 constitution, which had been hastily drafted during his year in power by a panel dominated by Mursi’s Islamist allies.
The current panel began work on drafting a new basic law at the beginning of September.
A road map for political transition set out by the new authorities stipulates that a referendum on the constitution be held by the end of the year, but government officials have said this is not now expected until the second half of January.
The 50-member panel includes representatives from civil society, political parties, institutions such as the army and police, and the Coptic church.
But it includes just two Islamists, neither of whom is from Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, which won a series of polls following Mubarak’s ouster but has in recent months been the target of a sweeping crackdown that has seen more than 1,000 people killed.
Mussa told reporters earlier that the panel “reached an agreement on the entire constitution which has been extensively revised” from the one adopted under Mursi.
But rights groups and activists have already criticized the draft, charging that it fails to curb the powers of the military.
They particularly object to Article 203, which would allow military trials of civilians accused of “direct attacks” on the armed forces.
Critics fear this provision could be interpreted expansively to target protesters, journalists and dissidents.
The article says that “no civilian can be tried by military judges, except for crimes of direct attacks on armed forces, military installations and military personnel.”
Mussa said that it differs from the 2012 constitution adopted under Mursi or the 1971 charter it replaced in that “this constitution clearly states under what charges a civilian can be tried in a military court.”
Secular activists have demonstrated against Article 203, and security forces arrested prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah this week for an unauthorized demonstration against military trials of civilians.
Abdel Fattah, a well-known blogger, was arrested during the reign of Mubarak, under the military junta that ousted the longtime dictator, and again under Mursi.
On Saturday Ahmed Maher, one of the leaders of the popular uprising against Mubarak, turned himself in after being ordered detained for holding a separate unauthorized demonstration in Cairo.
Maher arrived at a court in the capital accompanied by dozens of chanting supporters, whom police dispersed with tear gas.
On Sunday, interim president Adly Mansour had approved a controversial law requiring organizers to seek authorization three days ahead of any planned demonstration.
Activists and rights groups had objected to an earlier draft of the constitution, saying that in addition to allowing military trials of civilians it also failed to curb the powers and privileges of Egypt’s military.
Article 234 stipulates that the defense minister be appointed in agreement with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.
But panel spokesman Mohammed Salmawy told AFP this clause will be applicable only for the first two presidential terms.
Panel members are still to vote on articles 203 and 234.
The draft also ensures that the military’s budget remains beyond civilian scrutiny.
Mussa told reporters the constitution “forbids forming religious parties or parties based on religious grounds.”
But he later clarified to AFP that “a party can have a religious identity, but it has to abide by laws, the constitution and the Egyptian civil state.”
This provision could have consequences for the Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Virtually the entire top leadership of the 80-year-old Brotherhood has been detained since Mursi’s overthrow.