Draft Egypt constitution strengthens army as talks drag on

Reuters
Constituent Assembly spokesman Mohamed Salmawy speaks at a news conference at the Shura Council in Cairo
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Constituent Assembly spokesman Mohamed Salmawy speaks at a news conference at the Shura Council in Cairo …

By Tom Perry and Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's new constitution would strengthen the army's hand and could ban Islamist parties outright, according to a draft published in state media on Thursday, though the drafting body missed a self-imposed deadline for finalizing the text.

Mohamed Salmawy, spokesman for the 50-member assembly, had said the committee would announce it had completed the draft on Thursday. But a source inside the assembly later said the committee would reconvene on Friday for more talks.

The constitution, expected to be put to a referendum in December, will be a milestone in the army's plans for a political transition, due to culminate in parliamentary and presidential elections next year.

It underscores the new balance of power after the military deposed Islamist head of state Mohamed Mursi in July following mass protests against his rule.

The assembly has until December 3 to finish its work.

The new constitution would replace one signed into law by Mursi last year after it was passed in a referendum. That constitution was suspended when Mursi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was overthrown.

The assembly chaired by former Arab League chief Amr Moussa has only two Islamists, one of them a member of the hardline Nour Party and the other a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood who backed the army's move against Mursi.

The source inside the assembly said the disagreements pertained to language in the preamble on Islamic law. But Mohamed Abolghar, a social democrat and assembly member, said the disputes included differences over language on the economy.

"I don't see any great difficulty left," he said.

The army-backed government hopes to move smoothly along its roadmap to elections, aimed at restoring a semblance of normalcy to a country torn by the worst civil strife in its modern history.

"There are a few fault lines that need to be resolved," said Zaid Al-Ali, a senior adviser on constitution building with International IDEA, a U.N.-affiliated organization, who is following the process.

But he added: "There's a general consensus among the people in charge that the deadline can't slip, and it won't slip."

PROTESTER KILLED

One protester was killed on Thursday in clashes between Mursi supporters and security forces at Cairo University, a reminder of tensions simmering at the surface of Egyptian political life. The government passed a law on Sunday that places heavy restrictions on protests.

And in a sign that the roadmap may yet be altered, an official said the authorities were considering delaying the presidential vote because holding parliamentary polls and forming a new government may take longer than anticipated.

That scenario would extend the term of interim president Adly Mansour, seen by critics as a front for army rule. The timetable has already slid: the original roadmap announced in early July envisioned elections within six months.

The Brotherhood, the target of a fierce crackdown since Mursi's downfall, has declared the entire political roadmap null and void, saying it is the result of a military coup.

While the last constitution largely preserved the military's privileges, the new draft appears to go further.

A text published by the state-run al-Ahram newspaper on Thursday says the choice of defense minister must be approved by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for a period of eight years from the time the constitution is passed into law.

Al-Ahram said it was the final draft.

"This means that the army will be a state inside the state," human rights lawyer Gamal Eid said.

It also allows for civilians to be tried in military courts - a holdover from previous constitutions and a major source of friction with pro-democracy activists who earlier this week held protests against the provisions.

The draft does away with Islamist-inspired language written into the last constitution. Salmawy said the Nour Party had objected to the draft's language on sharia, or Islamic law, and the "civilian nature of the state". Nour Party officials said they were waiting for the final version before commenting.

It also bans any party founded on "a religious basis" - possibly paving the way for the outright dissolution of the Nour, which won a fifth of the seats in parliament in the last legislative elections, coming second to the Brotherhood.

Court rulings and the police crackdown have already driven the Brotherhood underground.

Salmawy said mass protests ahead of Mursi's ouster had signaled the public's opposition to a "religious state". The new constitution's preamble declared Egypt "a modern democratic state under civilian rule", he added.

The Islamists have yet to say whether they will try to rally a no vote against the constitution. For the Brotherhood, that would amount to tacit recognition of the new political process.

(Additional reporting by Asma Alsharif and Omar Fahmy; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

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