Egypt releases draft of constitution for debate

CAIRO  — The panel writing Egypt's new constitution released a partial draft of the document on Wednesday, calling for a public debate in the face of mounting criticism over Islamists' shaping of the charter.

The campaign, labeled "Know Your Constitution," comes as the 100 members of the assembly are still haggling over controversial articles in the charter, some of which will determine the role of religion in the country's affairs and the independence of the judiciary. The partial draft made public also did not include sections still under debate over the role of the military and the extent of civilian oversight over its budget.

The panel is dominated by Islamists who have come under mounting criticism from liberals and secularists. They accuse the conservative Islamists of seeking to place limits in the new constitution on religious freedoms and women's rights.

One article introduced by Islamists that came under heated debate puts limitations on equality between men and women in accordance with Islamic laws. Liberals and rights groups argued for the conditionality to be removed, but it appeared in the draft copy distributed Wednesday.

In a sign that the role of religion in legislation has not yet been settled, another article that would install Al-Azhar, Egypt's premier Sunni Islamic institution, as the sole body authorized to interpret religious laws, did not appear in the draft. That suggested that the assembly had not yet settled that issue.

This article would effectively give Al-Azhar powers to vet laws to determine if they are in line with its interpretation of Islam— a notion that has raised criticism from liberal groups.

"It is the right of every Egyptian in and outside of Egypt to review the draft, suggest articles that are even better than what is already in there," Mohammed el-Beltagi, a leading Islamist panel membertold reporters.

He said the panel has not yet voted on the articles in the draft, meaning that the material made public was not final. The document, released to reporters, includes footnotes on nearly every article, blanked out areas that it said had not yet been decided and brackets on material that members were debating whether to delete, indicating that the draft was still very much a work in progress.

Panel members have said they expected to finish writing the draft charter as early as next month. The new constitution then will have to be put to a public referendum within 30 days.

Egyptians are writing the charter following longtime President Hosni Mubarak's ouster last year in a popular uprising. The previous constitution, adopted in 1971, was suspended and later voided after Mubarak's ouster in February 2011.

International Human Rights Watch had appealed to the panel members to review articles in theconstitution that it said may fall short of Egypt's international obligations, such as neglecting to mention torture in the constitution, or giving a prominent role to an unelected religious institution in reviewing laws.

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