Last updated: November 28, 2012 4:22 pm

Egypt’s president speeds constitution

Demonstrators run away from tear gas during clashes with Egyptian riot Police on Omar Makram street, off Tahrir Square©AFP

Demonstrators flee tear gas during clashes with police near Tahrir Square

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi tried to quell the political crisis over his assumption of near absolute powers by speeding the adoption of a new constitution.

The move could lead the president to give up his new authority within weeks.

After a mass protest in Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday, the Islamist-dominated panel drawing up Egypt’s new constitution said in a surprise decision that it would vote on a final draft on Thursday.

Accelerating the adoption of the constitution could allow it to be put to a referendum as soon as in two weeks and open the way to parliamentary elections.

Mr Morsi had said the powers he awarded himself last week, which put his legal decisions above the law, were temporary and to be exercised only until a new assembly was in place.

But an official from the president’s Muslim Brotherhood group said on Wednesday that Mr Morsi would abandon his new powers earlier. “The president will give up the immunity of his decisions to legal challenges as soon as there is a new constitution,” the official said.

Accusing the president of turning into a dictator, tens of thousands of Egyptians protested against his decree on Tuesday, flooding Tahrir Square, the centre of last year’s revolt against the rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Judges across the country have gone on strike and the constitutional court, the country’s highest judicial authority, issued a sharp rebuke to the president on Wednesday, saying it would not be intimidated or succumb to pressure.

The cassation and appeals courts also said on Wednesday that they would suspend virtually all work, pending a decision on the constitutionality of the president’s decree.

Observers said Mr Morsi had been looking for a way to contain the crisis without losing face but it was far from clear whether pushing through the new constitution would have the desired effect. A presidential insider told the Reuters news agency that Mr Morsi would address the nation on Thursday evening over both the decree giving him sweeping powers and ensuing protests.

In rushing through the constitution, however, he will probably have sacrificed the consensus that the Brotherhood had repeatedly promised would be enshrined in the document.

The constitutional panel has been dominated by Islamists. Liberal members of the drafting assembly and representatives of Egypt’s three main churches walked out this month protesting that their concerns were being brushed aside.

In depth

Egypt in transition

Protestors carry a large Egyptian flag through Tahrir Square on January 31, 2011 in Cairo

Protesters have accused President Morsi of turning himself into a dictator

In one of the provisions of his edict last week, Mr Morsi extended the deadline for completion of the constitution to mid-February to provide a chance for consensus to be achieved. He also insulated the assembly from any potential court ruling that might disband it. The constitutional court has been considering a legal challenge to the panel.

“This will add to tensions. The constitution is the main reason for this crisis,” said Ahmad Maher, leader of the youth group April 6. “If the Brotherhood continue this way, it will heat up matters further because there is no intention to reach consensus.”

Disputes between Islamists and liberals about the place of religion in the new constitution are at the heart of Egypt’s current crisis.

The Brotherhood has been under pressure from ultraconservative Salafi groups to give Islam a more central role in public life, something that liberals and secular-minded Egyptians have been resisting. An article in the draft constitution ensures that religion will have a bigger impact on governance.

The Brotherhood said the liberals who walked out of the constitutional assembly were involved in a “childish game” and had already agreed to provisions that they were now disputing.

The president and his supporters suggested last week that his edict aimed to overcome hurdles to the democratic transition placed by a judiciary loyal to the Mubarak regime and hostile to the Islamists.

The Cairo stock exchange fell 4.6 per cent on Wednesday, its second big drop in a week amid prospects of continued political unrest as Islamists and their opponents prepared for rival street protests in coming days.

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