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updated: 11/30/2012 7:40 PM

Egyptians protest after Islamist-dominated assembly OKs constitution

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  • Egyptians chant slogans Friday during a demonstration in Tahrir Square, Cairo.

    Egyptians chant slogans Friday during a demonstration in Tahrir Square, Cairo.
    Associated Press


By Stephanie McCrummen/The Washington Post

CAIRO -- Tens of thousands of protesters converged on Cairo's Tahrir Square on Friday to demonstrate against the nation's new constitution, a document hastily approved by an Islamist-dominated assembly in a marathon session that ended early Friday morning.

President Mohamed Morsi's supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood had gambled that passing the charter would calm a political crisis sparked last week when he issued an extraordinary declaration granting himself near-absolute power. Morsi cast the move as a temporary until a new constitution is in place.

But if anything, the charter -- which passed after walkouts by liberal, secular and other non-Islamist assembly members and in theory will be put to a public referendum -- seems only to have plunged Egypt deeper into turmoil.

"The constitution does not represent the majority of the Egyptian people," said Abdel Azim Mohamed, 23, a student in one of the flag-waving clusters of protesters converging on Tahrir Square on Friday afternoon. "There was no dialogue."

Analysts said the constitution -- or at least the portions of the text made public so far -- appears to be neither the deeply Islamist document that Morsi's critics had feared nor the inclusive, progressive charter that liberal and secular revolutionaries had hoped would guide the world's most populous Arab nation.

Article 2, defining the relationship between Islam and Egyptian law, for instance, remains essentially unchanged from Egypt's old constitution. The new charter says that the legal code stems from "the principles of Islamic law," wording broad enough to allow for individual rights and freedoms. The article was a disappointment to some liberals, who had hoped it would be left out altogether, while also being less than what Morsi's most ultraconservative Salafist backers wanted. They had sought to codify strict moral codes and allow religious scholars to trump legal ones.

But in Tahrir Square on Friday, many of the protesters waving Egyptian flags and chanting "Down with Morsi!" said they had barely read the charter's 234 articles, which were trickling out online.

Instead, they objected to the messy process that led to its approval, coming as it did after the walkouts of most non-Islamist members of the drafting panel and after Morsi's decree placing nearly all his actions beyond judicial review. The chaos virtually guarantees that the legitimacy of the charter will be questioned in the courts and in the streets.

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

The document will spawn "all kinds of controversy -- political, legal and dueling confrontations on the streets," said Nathan Brown, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. "At this point, things seem to be escalating in all ways, and there are no real attempts to contain them. It raises concern about the stability of the political system."

In a prerecorded interview that aired during voting Thursday night, Morsi -- who compared the complexity of the world to a bowl of spaghetti in a recent interview with Time magazine -- embraced the chaos.

"The scene before me is very healthy and very positive," he said, referring to the protests.

Friday's demonstration was not yet as large as the one earlier in the week, in which protesters began calling for Morsi's ouster for the first time, fearful he may become an Islamist version of Hosni Mubarak, the longtime autocratic ruler who was ousted in a popular uprising nearly two years ago. Still, there were many newcomers Friday, drawn by their outrage over the new charter, and leading opposition figures predicted it would never survive.

Morsi's Islamist supporters in the Brotherhood and the Salafist Nour party have planned demonstrations Saturday, when Morsi is expected to call for a referendum on the constitution.

Much like Egypt is at the moment, the charter is a fairly vague jumble of old and new, secular and Islamist, a sometimes contradictory set of ideas that remain open to interpretation and satisfy no one. Even as the articles were being voted on Friday night, changes were being scribbled in and punctuation altered.

Compromises between the authoritarian Egypt of Mubarak, the revolutionary Egypt that ousted him and the newly elected Islamist government that replaced him are sprinkled throughout. Article 43, for example, guarantees freedom of expression, while Article 44 forbids insulting any prophets. Article 50 preserves the right of assembly but requires "notification" of such gatherings.

The constitution imposes presidential term limits, marking a clear shift from the Mubarak era. But other checks on presidential power remain ill-defined.

As the voting began Thursday, liberal activists began blogging and tweeting their objections and political Islamists their retorts, reflecting the deepening polarization of Egypt's political classes.

"This constitution that is being written a few steps away from tear gas and bullets and under the protection of the interior ministry and the legitimacy of the Brotherhood and dictatorial immunity does not and will not represent me," wrote Rasha Azb, a prominent activist.

Nader Bakkar, a spokesman for the Nour party -- who is a member of the constitution-writing assembly, said the charter represents solid progress compared with the Mubarak days.

"This constitution has diminished the authorities of the president to a bare minimum," he said. "The issues related to human rights in this constitution cannot be compared to previous constitutions."

Morsi has been locked in a power struggle with the Mubarak-era judiciary since he was elected this summer, when the country's highest court dissolved the democratically elected, Islamist-dominated parliament that backed him. That same court was expected to dissolve the constitution-writing assembly Sunday, when it was to hear cases stemming from the walkout of its liberal, secular and Christian members, prompting a rush for the body to complete its work.

Morsi's supporters have cast the decree he issued last week as a short-term measure needed to protect Egypt's democratic transition from the judiciary. In the interview that aired Thursday, Morsi reiterated that he would relinquish his new powers once Egypt has a new constitution in place.

But getting to that point will involve the judiciary that Morsi is flouting. Once the assembly approves the constitution, the process of submitting it to a referendum must be overseen by courts, many of which are on strike.

"So," said Brown, the professor, "will they be able to fulfill the legal requirements of the referendum?"

In the interview, Morsi appeared confident, pointing his finger and shouting, "If someone tries to prolong the transitional phase, I will not permit them to do that!"

If Egyptians vote down the new constitution, he said, "we will start all over again."

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