Egypt’s Islamist lawmakers hurriedly approved a draft constitution Friday morning to pre-empt a judicial intervention Sunday that could decide the legitimacy of the constitutional assembly.
The lawmakers rushed through the proceedings, approving all the 234 articles of the constitution, voting one-by-one in a 19-hour session that concluded at the break of dawn Friday.
"We have finished working on Egypt's constitution," head of the assembly Hossam El-Gheriyani said in a live broadcast of the session. "We will call the president today (Friday) at a reasonable hour to inform him that the assembly has finished its task and the project of the constitution is completed."
President Mohammed Morsi is expected to ratify the document by Saturday which would be followed by a nationwide referendum to be held as soon as mid-December.
The approval of the draft constitution has escalated the conflict between the pro-Morsi and the opposition groups. The opposition, comprising liberal and Christian members of the assembly, says the new constitution would give undue power to the Islamist groups over the legislation and restricts women’s rights and other civil liberties.
Liberal and Christian members had withdrawn from the voting in protest against a decree by Morsi last week that gave dictatorial powers to the president, overriding the judiciary and the assembly.
Although Morsi claimed that the decree was applicable for a short-term till the constitution was approved, violent protests broke out in the country against the president and his Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
"It will end as soon as the people vote on a constitution," Morsi told state television while the constituent assembly was still voting on the draft. "There is no place for dictatorship," Reuters reported.
Though the assembly members backed by the Muslim Brotherhood welcomed the constitution and claimed that it represented all Egyptians and protected freedom of expression and civil liberties, the opposition members called for a “no vote” on the referendum.
"I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided," Egypt's top reform leader and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei told Al-Nahar TV. He predicted that the document would not last long. "It will be part of political folklore and will go to the garbage bin of history," as reported by the ABC News.
"We fundamentally reject the referendum and constituent assembly because the assembly does not represent all sections of society," said Sayed el-Erian, 43, a member of the liberal Dostour (Constitution) Party, set up by ElBaradei.
The division in the assembly was evident as there were no Christian or liberal members voting for the constitution. The liberal opposition members allege that the Islamist groups had hijacked the process and some of the provisions in the new constitution were detrimental to civil liberties and women rights.
The constitution says that the essence of the law would be based on the “principles” of Shariah and the morals and ethics of the Egyptian families would be protected -- a provision which right groups say will be utilized to limit women’s rights.
The constitution also has provisions like “limiting a person’s presidential tenure to two terms” that would end the possibilities of dictatorships. Hosni Mubarak had ruled Egypt for two decades before being ousted by the Arab Spring.
The constitution, once approved by the people through a referendum, will cancel the controversial decree by the president and transfer all powers to a legislative body.