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Egypt’s president hails new constitution as protests rage

Egyptian anti-Morsi protesters pack Tahrir Square
Egyptian anti-Morsi protesters pack Tahrir Square

President Mohamed Morsi praised Egypt’s “first truly representative constitution” during a speech in Cairo on Saturday, saying it protects “the rights, freedoms and human dignity of all Egyptians.” Meanwhile, according to Ahram Online, thousands of protesters packed Tahrir Square and threatened to march on the presidential palace.

After announcing that a national referendum on the draft will be held on December 15, Morsi said the “sacrifices of the martyrs of the revolution” cannot be forgotten and the world is looking on to see “how Egypt will build itself.”

He even paid homage to opponents that withdrew from the final drafting sessions, proclaiming that, “History will remember your patriotic role in writing this constitution."

However, several opposition groups denounced Morsi’s call for a referendum and vowed to defeat the constitution, claiming it was designed in haste by an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly bent on imposing sharia law.

Immediately after Morsi’s speech, Mohamed ElBaradei, an opposition leader and former UN diplomat, Tweeted that the draft constitution “undermines basic freedoms and violates universal values.”

Critics contend that the Islamists have stolen the revolution and are railroading through a constitution that could lead to decades of Muslim Brotherhood rule. Morsi has also been criticized for decreeing himself above the courts and granting himself broad executive privileges that have made him even more powerful than the deposed tyrant Hosni Mubarak.

Although the previous constitution stated that the principles of sharia were the main source of legislation, the drafters added a clause that such principles must be in accordance with established schools of Sunni Muslim doctrine, which could hinder judges from applying progressive interpretations.

A representative from Amnesty International said the new draft of the constitution fails to protect the rights of women and minorities and restricts freedom of expression. Freedom of religion is limited to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, potentially excluding the right to worship to other minority sects such as Baha'is and Shi'a Muslims.

On Sunday Egypt’s High Constitutional Court (HCC) will meet to determine the constitutionality of the Constituent Assembly, which worked quickly to finish the draft before the court ruling. But the legitimacy of the constitution could be called into question if the court decides to dissolve the legislative body.

The Washington Post reported that on Saturday night a few thousand Morsi supporters gathered outside the building of the HCC and set up tents, “heightening the tension.” Safwat Hegazy, a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood who heads the Guardians of the Revolution Council, called the 19-justice HCC “a tool of counterrevolution which is made up of judges appointed by the ousted Mubarak."

U.S. leaders have remained, for the most part, silent on the situation, urging both sides to stay calm and reconcile their differences peacefully, although State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland did lament the lack of consensus in Egypt's constitution-writing process.

During Friday’s press briefing Nuland encouraged Egypt’s citizenry to participate in the referendum to ensure the constitution respects universal human rights and that “Egyptians of all stripes are protected under the law.” Yet, according to NBC’s Richard Engel, Washington generally views the crisis as “democracy in progress.”


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