Egypt assembly votes on constitution

President Morsi's decree has sparked huge protests across Egypt

The Islamist-dominated assembly writing a new Egyptian constitution has adopted the first part of the draft, including a measure keeping sharia, or Islamic law, as the main source of legislation.

Voting began after the constitutional court said it would rule on Sunday whether to dissolve the assembly.

Egypt's judiciary is in a stand-off with President Mohammed Morsi after he granted himself sweeping new powers.

Mr Morsi said his decree should only apply for as short a time as possible.

In an interview on state TV, Mr Morsi said: "The declaration is to manage the situation in a transitional period, which is critical for all of us.

"It stipulates the period will come to an end as soon as people vote on the new constitution."

Once adopted by the constituent assembly, the draft must be ratified by the president and then put to a referendum.

Liberal, left-wing and Christian members have boycotted the assembly, accusing the Islamists of trying to impose their vision.

The opponents of the draft have voiced concern that some clauses - such as the importance of promoting families values - could be used to restrict freedom of speech.

They also do not like the fact that there is no specific article establishing equality between men and women.

Voting on the draft is continuing.

'Nonsensical'

Constitution at a glance

  • Sharia remains the main source of legislation
  • Egypt's most respected Islamic institution, al-Azhar, to be consulted on "matters related to sharia"
  • Christianity and Judaism to be the main source of legislation for Christians and Jews
  • Religious freedom to be limited to Muslims, Christians and Jews
  • Limits president to two four-year terms of office

According to Egyptian state TV, the articles so far passed stipulate the Islam is the religion of the state, and the principles of sharia are the "main source of legislation".

This is unchanged from the previous constitution under Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled as president last year.

Salafists and some members of Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood failed to have "principles" replaced by "rules".

The draft also says that Christianity and Judaism will be the "main source of legislation" for Egyptian Christians and Jews, state TV reported.

The assembly also adopted a new article that al-Azhar mosque and university, authorities on Sunni Muslim jurisprudence, must be consulted on "matters related to sharia".

The president will be limited to two four-year terms of office.

Officials at the assembly said on Wednesday they were finishing the draft constitution, even though Mr Morsi recently extended its deadline until February.

"May God bless us on this day," assembly speaker Hossam el-Gheriyani said at the start of Thursday's session.

The assembly is voting on each of 234 articles in the draft constitution. It will then be sent to Mr Morsi for approval. After that, he must put it to a popular referendum.

The BBC's Jon Leyne, in Cairo, says issuing a constitution in these circumstances would be a deeply inflammatory move.

Opposition figure and former Arab League chief Amr Moussa told Reuters news agency: "This is nonsensical and one of the steps that shouldn't be taken, given the background of anger and resentment to the current constitutional assembly."

'Sacred mission'

Egypt's state-run news agency Mena said on Thursday it had obtained details of the draft constitution.

Mena said it included a clause on press freedom, and stated that only courts could suspend or close newspapers.

The assembly also aimed to set up a national security council led by the president and consisting of key officials such as the prime minister, defence minister and intelligence chief, Mena said.

Morsi's decree

  • Reopen investigations into killings of protesters; retrials of those accused
  • No appeals against constitutional decrees made since Morsi came to power
  • President to appoint the public prosecutor (must be aged at least 40)
  • Constituent assembly to get two months extra to draft new constitution
  • No judicial authority can dissolve the constituent assembly or the upper house of parliament (Shura Council)
  • President authorised to take any measures to preserve the revolution or safeguard national security

Thursday's vote appeared to be aimed at dodging a ruling by the constitutional court on Sunday on whether the assembly should be dissolved.

The constitutional court's deputy chairman, Maher Sami, said in a televised speech that the ruling would go ahead.

"The court is determined to rise above its pain and continue its sacred mission until the end, wherever that takes us," he said.

The court has already dissolved the lower house of Egypt's parliament, which was led by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The declaration that sparked protests gave Mr Morsi powers to take any measures to protect the revolution, and stated that no court could overturn his decisions. It is valid until a new constitution is in place.

Critics accuse Mr Morsi of trying to seize absolute power.

Supporters say the extra powers were needed to protect the gains of the revolution against a judiciary with deep ties to the overthrown President Mubarak.

On Wednesday, Mr Morsi told Time magazine that he would surrender his new powers once a new constitution was in place.

"If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week will stop," he said.

"I hope, when we have a constitution, what I have issued will stop immediately."

On Monday, Mr Morsi told senior judges that the decrees would be restricted to "sovereign matters" designed to protect institutions.

But judges said they were not satisfied and wanted the declaration completely withdrawn.

On Wednesday, judges called a strike, saying appeals courts and the court of cassation would halt work until it was revoked.

There have been running protests since the decrees were issued, often spilling over into violent clashes between protesters and riot police.

The Muslim Brotherhood and the more radical al-Nour party have called for a counter-protest in Cairo on Saturday.

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