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Secular Egyptians protest Islamists’ role in drafting new constitution

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CAIRO — Egyptian liberal and secular groups gathered Friday in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest what they say is the overreach of the country’s Islamists in drafting a new constitution.

The groups, demonstrating for the second consecutive Friday, say the 100-member drafting assembly, which is dominated by Islamists, lacks the legitimacy to write the charter that will define the way Egypt is governed and represent the values of its 85 million people. On Tuesday, a Cairo court is expected to rule on their claim.

Previous court hearings on the case were adjourned because the Muslim Brotherhood, which dominates the assembly, requested more information. Experts say the case consolidates at least 43 lawsuits on the assembly’s legal legitimacy.

Both Islamists and liberals said rising tensions between the two sides over contentious drafts of the constitution — along with a simmering conflict between the judiciary and President Mohamed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood — have raised the specter of a verdict Tuesday to dissolve the assembly, rather than another delay.

Last week, tensions between Morsi and the country’s largely secular judges spiked when Morsi tried to fire Egypt’s powerful general prosecutor. Like most of the judges, the prosecutor is a holdover from the era of president Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted in February 2011.

The conflict exacerbated preexisting strains over the constitution, said Mohamed el-Beltagy, a high-ranking member of the Muslim Brotherhood and the constitution-drafting assembly. “The fallout, without a doubt, gave the court a chance to move, despite the fact that Egyptian popular opinion is not convinced” that the court needs to, he said.

But liberal groups, arguing that the Islamist-dominated assembly is pushing constitutional articles that would roll back the rights of women and minorities, said Friday that the assembly’s makeup demands a revision — at the very least — and fast.

“What we know is this is not the right path, so we are trying to rectify it,” said Raafat Wagdy, a physician. “The message we want to convey [to the Brotherhood] is you are not alone, and we are not just a small minority that can be ignored.”

The dispute between the Brotherhood and its opponents escalated into violent clashes last weekend. At Friday’s protest, many liberals and secularists called for the downfall of Morsi’s government and said they want the constitution-drafting process to be restarted.

Members of the drafting assembly have said they aim to finalize the constitution and bring it to a national referendum by the end of the year. But experts said a sudden annulment of the assembly would set the clock back on what has already been a turbulent political transition.

An earlier assembly was dissolved by court order in April. This time, Morsi would have the power to appoint a new one — a prospect that neither Islamists nor liberals seem to welcome.

“We would go back to having the same people and the same problems,” said Kamal Habib, an Islamist scholar and political activist. “You’re not going to bring in angels. You’ll bring in people whom other people object to.”

Moreover, he said, the delay would mean the Arab world’s largest country would continue to function without a central governing charter, potentially slowing the pace of badly needed economic and political reforms and fueling popular discontent.

Without a constitution in the near future, Egypt would become “an institutional vacuum,” Beltagy said.

But liberals said they were willing to pay the price for a more representative body of laws.

“Even if the assembly is dissolved, Morsi will form a new one,” said Fatem Wagdy, a university professor. “Our role is to say we want a different new one.”

Ingy Hassieb and Amer Shakhatreh contributed to this report.

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