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Egyptian assembly begins voting on constitution

Members of the constitutional assembly attend a session to vote on a final draft of a new Egyptian constitution on Thursday, Nov. 29, in Cairo. (AP Photo)

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Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012, 5:04 p.m.

CAIRO – An Islamist-dominated assembly is hastily voting on a new constitution for Egypt as political unrest against the ruling Muslim Brotherhood entered a second week.

Thousands of demonstrators on Thursday remained in the capital's Tahrir Square, protesting President Mohamed Morsy's decrees placing himself above judicial review.

For a seventh day, young activists battled police on streets leading to the square.

The constitutional assembly began voting on more than 200 articles in its document.

H.A. Hellyer, a Cairo-based fellow of the liberal Brookings Institution in Washington, called the process “flawed from the get-go.”

“I don't think it was a representative constitutional assembly, and I don't think there was an intention to make it one,” Hellyer said. “I think ramming it through in this way shows there is no desire to get consensus, at a time when the country needs more consensus than ever.”

Critics have charged the Islamic-based Brotherhood of packing the assembly with its members and its allies, the hard-core Islamists known as Salafis. Many liberals on the 100-person assembly resigned in protest.

Political liberals here say the assembly is pressing to enact Islamic rule and to quash personal and religious freedoms and women's rights.

“It will look like a counter-revolutionary constitution,” predicted journalist and activist Wael Eskandar, 32. “It is pretty clear that it is ambiguous when it comes to freedoms.”

He predicted the new constitution would limit judicial authority and expand Islamic rule.

Egypt's highest constitutional court has accused Morsy of a campaign against the judiciary and suspended its work.

Brotherhood officials said the constitution could be submitted to a public referendum within two weeks. If it is approved, Morsy's power-grabbing decrees will be rescinded; if not, the decrees will remain in effect and the constitution-writing process will begin anew.

Eskandar dismissed that as “blackmailing us through a dictatorship.”

Recognizing the Islamists' vote-mobilizing power, anti-Morsy activists say they are making plans to ensure a “no” vote.

“I know people are disenfranchised with the Muslim Brotherhood, but it is enough? I don't know,” Eskandar said.

Brookings' Hellyer said the Brotherhood's tactics could mean the constitution has “a short shelf-life” and turn Egypt “into an extremely divisive place.”

The Brotherhood and its Salafi partners called for a pro-Morsy protest on Saturday in Tahrir Square, raising fears of bloody clashes with anti-Morsy forces there.

Brotherhood officials later relented and agreed to rally across the capital near Cairo University.

Hellyer said Morsy's supporters are trying to portray anti-Morsy forces as “felool” – remnants of the ousted Mubarak regime – or as “a plot to bring Mr. Morsy down and plunge the country into chaos.”

Meanwhile, anti-Morsy forces' distrust of “anything that the Brotherhood will do in the future is tremendous,” he added.

Betsy Hiel is the Tribune-Review'sforeign correspondent. Email her at

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