CAIRO – Concluding a marathon race towards democracy, an Islamist-led assembly finalized a new constitution early on Friday, November 30, aimed at transforming Egypt and paving the way for an end to a troublesome, exceptional transitional phase.
“We have finished working on Egypt's constitution," said Hossam el-Gheriyani, head of the assembly in a live broadcast of the session, Reuters reported.
"This is a revolutionary constitution," Gheriyani said, asking members of the assembly to launch a cross-country campaign to "explain to our nation its constitution," added Gheriyani, after which Egypt's national anthem was played.
The assembly concluded the vote after a marathon session that lasted 19 hours, approving all articles including less presidential powers, the status of Islam and the military's role.
The new draft also states new human rights which will be respected in the post-Hosni Mubarak era.
The final draft contains historic changes to Egypt's system of government.
It limits to eight years the amount of time a president can serve, for example. Mubarak was in power for three decades.
It also introduces a degree of oversight over the military establishment - though not enough for critics.
The vote was often interrupted by bickering between the mostly Islamist members and Gheriyani over the document's articles. Several articles were amended on the spot before they were voted on.
President Morsi is expected to ratify the document by Saturday, allowing a referendum to be held as soon as mid-December on a text the Islamists say reflects Egypt's new freedoms.
“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,” el-Ghiriani said.
The constitution will replace the one suspended after president Hosni Mubarak's overthrow in early 2011.
Though Morsi allowed the assembly a further two months after its mid-December deadline to finish the charter, the constitutional assembly rushed the adoption of the much debated 234 articles to end tension in the streets.
If Egyptians approve the constitution, legislative powers will pass straight from Morsi to the upper house of parliament, in line with an article in the new constitution, assembly members said.
Boycotting the constitution assembly in its final days, Christians and liberals accused Islamists of restricting freedom of speech and religion in the adopted draft.
"Some of the provisions are penal code provisions,” Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt director, told Agence France Presse (AFP) on Friday.
“You don't list all the things that you are not allowed to do, you're supposed to set up the rights and limitations," she said.
Morayef warned against the limitation of religious freedom to followers of Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Islam and Judaism), which would exclude minorities such as Bahais.
"They have added language that is problematic to freedom of expression," she said.
“You cannot 'insult a human,' which is very broad. It can be used to censor criticism of the president.”
Christians have objected to an article that seeks to narrow the meaning of "the principles of Islamic law" to the tenets of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence.
Morsi and his supporters argue that delaying the constitution, which would be followed by parliamentary elections to replace the Islamist-dominated house dissolved by a court earlier this year, would delay democratic transition.
In a pre-recorded interview broadcast on Thursday night, Morsi repeated that the new powers he had assumed were temporary and would be terminated when the constitution is passed.
"This is an exceptional stage; we are in a transitional phase," Morsi told state television.
"This constitutional declaration is temporary, and it will end once the people have approved the constitution."
The plebiscite is a gamble based on the Islamists' belief that they can mobilize voters again after winning all elections held since Mubarak was overthrown in February 2011.
"May God bless us on this day," Gheriyani said.