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Updated Saturday, December 1, 2012 at 07:11 PM

Egyptian draft constitution sparks mass protests

By Stephanie McCrummen
The Washington Post

CAIRO — Just hours after an Islamist-dominated assembly approved a new national constitution Friday, tens of thousands of protesters began pouring into Tahrir Square to say they objected to nearly everything about it.

They objected to constitution-writing assembly itself, which they said was unrepresentative after liberal, secular and Christian members walked out.

They objected to what they knew of the charter, which does not contain explicit protections for minority religions or women's rights and which many referred to as the "Muslim Brotherhood constitution," a reference to the Islamist backers of Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi.

And on the eighth day after Morsi decreed himself near-absolute powers in the name of preserving democratic gains, a disparate array of protesters chanted "down with Morsi" and other revolutionary slogans uttered during the popular uprising that toppled Egypt's longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak nearly two years ago.

"I came down here to say no to the constitution and no to the constitutional declaration," said Hanaa Sweries, a former teacher who was protesting in Tahrir Square for the first time Friday, referring to Morsi's decree.

"I knew from the start what he would do, but what is a surprise to me is that there are clashes so soon. I expected goodwill would last longer."

And so it was that what was supposed to be a proud moment in the course of post-Mubarak Egypt — the birth of a new national charter to guide the path forward — degenerated into one more disappointment to liberals who seem ever more distrustful of Morsi and stunned at what their fragile democratic transition has wrought.

The constitution now goes to Morsi's office. If he approves it, Morsi must call for a public referendum on the charter within the next two weeks.

The U.S. State Department weighed in on the deepening political crisis Friday, expressing concern over the "apparent lack of consensus during the drafting process."

"If President Morsi approves this constitution, then the people of Egypt will have a chance via referendum to express their views on it," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

The constitution, which was being changed and repunctuated even as it was being voted on in a 13-hour session that stretched from late Thursday into Friday morning, represents neither the worst fears nor highest hopes of Egyptians.

It affirms that Egyptian law stems from "the principles of Islam," for instance, but did not codify some of the strict moral codes Morsi's more fundamentalist Islamist backers wanted.

The charter states no law can limit the freedoms and rights set out in the constitution yet also says that the expression of those freedoms cannot undermine the "true nature of the family." Freedom of religion is explicitly protected for Muslims, Christians and Jews, but not other religions.

The view in Tahrir Square on Friday seemed to be that whatever is in the new constitution's 234 articles, the process that brought it about was so flawed the charter could not possibly be supported.

"I don't like whatever it says," said one protester, a doctor who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "The way it was passed, I'm not happy."

Beyond Cairo, demonstrations sprang up Friday in Alexandria and other cities across Egypt to signal resistance to the charter, which remains mired in legal chaos stemming from Morsi's power struggle with Mubarak-era judges.

Egypt's highest court dissolved the Islamist-dominated Parliament this summer and had threatened to dissolve the Islamist-dominated constitution-drafting panel, too, prompting the body to hustle the draft constitution to approval.

Morsi has repeatedly cast last week's decree as necessary to speed Egypt's democratic transition, saying he would relinquish his newly acquired powers once the constitution is fully adopted.


THOMAS HARTWELL / AP
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square on Friday wave banners depicting some of the more well-known individuals who died in the Egyptian revolution




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