CAIRO – An Islamist-dominated assembly began a fast-track vote on a final draft of a new Egyptian constitution Thursday, pushing through the document despite liberals' boycott in a move likely to stoke a deepening political crisis between the Islamist president and the opposition.
The assembly, overwhelmingly made up of allies of President Mohammed Morsi, abruptly moved up the vote, which hadn't been expected to take place for another two months, in order to pass the draft before Egypt's Supreme Constitution Court rules on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.
The vote escalates a confrontation that has already thrown Egypt into turmoil, between Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters on one side and a largely secular and liberal opposition and the nation's judiciary on the other. It was sparked when Morsi last week granted himself near absolute powers to neutralize the judiciary, the last branch of the state not in his hands.
Street clashes have already erupted between the two camps the past week-- and more violence is possible. At least 200,000 people protested in Cairo's Tahrir square earlier this week against Morsi's decrees.
The opposition plans another large protest for Friday, and the Brotherhood has called a similar massive rally for the following day, though they decided to move it from Tahrir, apparently to avoid frictions. Hundreds of opposition supporters have been camping out since Friday in Tahrir and bands of youths have been daily battling police on a road leading off the square and close to the U.S. Embassy.
Morsi's edicts a week ago were largely aimed at preventing the judiciary from disbanding the 100-member constitution-writing panel. He barred courts outright from doing so, then went further to bar judges from reviewing any of his own decisions. Confident the assembly was protected, he gave it until February to iron out the sharp differences over the draft.
But when the Constitutional Court defied his decree and said Wednesday that it would rule on the panel's legitimacy, the date of the vote was immediately moved up.
Islamist members of the panel defended the fast tracking. Hussein Ibrahim of the Brotherhood said the draft reflected thousands of hours of debate over the past six months.
"People want the constitution because they want stability. Go to villages, to poorer areas, people want stability," he said.
Another Islamist, Abul-ela Madi, argued that "the key to resolving the crisis is to finish the constitution. The end product is very good."
Over the past week, about 30 members have pulled out of the assembly to protest what they call the hijacking of the process by Islamists loyal to Morsi. As Thursday's session began, the assembly held a vote to formally remove 11 of those who withdrew and replace them with reserve members -- who largely belong to the Islamist camp. The 11 included former foreign minister and presidential candidate Amr Moussa, liberal politician Waheed Abdel-Maguid and two Christians.
As a result, as the members began voting on the draft article by article, each passed overwhelmingly. The draft largely reflects the conservative vision of the Islamists, with articles that rights activists, liberals and others fear will lead to restrictions on the rights of women and minorities and on civil liberties in general.
One article that passed underlined that the state will protect "the true nature of the Egyptian family ... and promote its morals and values," phrasing that suggests state control over the contents of such arts forms as books and films. The draft also contains no article specifically establishing equality between men and women because of disputes over the phrasing.
As in past constitutions, the new draft says that the "principles of Islamic law" will be the basis of law. But a new article states that Egypt's most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah, a measure critics fear will lead to oversight of legislation by clerics.
Another one seeks to define "principles" of Islamic law by saying it reflects theological doctrines and tenets. The term "principles" had long been intentionally vague, and specifying its bases could vastly expand the reach of Shariah in influencing society.
Praising the draft, panel president Hossam al-Ghiryani, told members: "We will teach this constitution to our sons."
"The Egyptian people are with us, listening to us," al-Ghiryani, an Islamist, said. "They must understand their constitution which they will vote on shortly and with which life will stabilize in Egypt, God willing."
Morsi is expected to call for a referendum on the draft as early as mid-December.
The committee has been plagued by controversy from the start. It was created by the first parliament elected after the fall last year of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. But a first permutation of the assembly, also Islamist-dominated, was disbanded by the courts. A new one was created just before the lower house of parliament, also Brotherhood-led, was dissolved by the judiciary earlier this year.
Morsi and his supporters say his decrees were necessary to "protect the revolution" and prevent the judiciary from holding up what they say is a transition to democracy. Morsi also decreed that courts cannot dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council -- though the Constitution Court is to rule on whether to do so as well on Sunday.
If the constitution passes, Morsi will hand over legislative powers to the Shura Council until elections for a new lower house are held, according to Prime Minister Hesham Kandil. The Shura Council is normally a toothless body and very few Egyptians voted in elections for it last winter -- turnout was less than 10 percent -- which led to the Brotherhood and other Islamists taking the vast majority of its seats.
Dissolving the constitutional panel and replacing it with a more inclusive body is a key demand by the liberal-led opposition. It also calls for rescinding the president's decrees.
Critics accuse the Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, of using their election victories to monopolize the state, squeezing out other factions, and pushing through an Islamist vision.
It is not clear what would happen to the approved draft if the Constitutional Court dissolves the assembly on Sunday. But the escalation could move the dispute more out of the realm of legal questions and into the more volatile street to be decided by which side can bring the most support.
Bassam al-Zarqa, a senior aide to Morsi and a member of the ultraconservative Salafi movement, said the rally called by Islamists for Saturday was "a necessity because it will give the message to the opposition that if you can bring one person (into the street) we can bring 10. So it's better to return to the ballot boxes and not street pressure."
Morsi became the country's first ever freely elected president when he narrowly won a June vote against Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.