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Egypt's Constitution Vote Mired In Controversy


And in Egypt, a panel of Islamist lawmakers has approved a new draft constitution, but what should have been a welcome step in the country's transition to democracy is instead mired in controversy. NPR's Leila Fadel has our story from Cairo.


LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: In an interview on Egypt's state TV last night, President Mohammed Morsi appeared calm as he tried to paint a set of controversial decrees he issued as a drastic stand to keep Egypt's transition to democracy on track.


FADEL: When the constitution is done, the decrees will be void, he says, and the balance of power restored.


FADEL: That's not what it looks like to Morsi's many opponents. They know that the drafting committee is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization from which Morsi hails. And even before the president's latest move, he'd already lost about a quarter of the constitution writers. Liberals, secularists, leftists and representatives of the church pulled out, worried about the outsized voice Islamists carried in the process.

MOHAMMED ELBARADEI: (Through translator) I'm saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided.

FADEL: That's Nobel laureate Mohammed ElBaradei, speaking to a local TV channel. He's one of the figures leading the charge against Morsi, and he predicted that this constitution is destined for the trashcan of history. The opposition to rushing through the constitution is much bigger than the mass protests on the street. Almost every judge in the country is on strike against Morsi's decrees, which they see as an attempt to undermine the judicial system.

TAREK MASOUD: I think it's very clear at this stage that he's gone too far. Remember, when people were protesting against Hosni Mubarak in January of 2011, one of their main grievances against this man was that he seemed to have absolute power.

FADEL: That's Tarek Masoud, a longtime scholar of the Brotherhood who teaches at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. He refers to the former president, Hosni Mubarak. Morsi's most strident critics have already dubbed the president, Morsellini, comparing him to the Italian fascist. But Morsi's allies say the fears of a new dictatorship are overblown.

Their argument is that the president is so concerned about Egypt's long-term stability, that he's willing to take tough stands that could cost him votes. Gehad el-Haddad - an advisor to the Muslim Brotherhood and its political wing - says that the president's opponents have purposely been dragging their feet to undermine progress. Indeed, the courts which are stacked with Mubarak appointees did appear poised this week to dissolve the constitution-writing committee for a second time, which would've take the transition process back to square one.

GEHAD EL-HADDAD: Perhaps a couple of weeks ago or even a couple of months ago, we had the level of agreement and good relations to tolerate a lot of such childish behaviors from some opposition figures. We no longer have this luxury, and we need to go forward.

FADEL: Critics says it's not just that the president is rushing through an imperfect document, but one that could be dangerous. For instance, the draft constitution has preserved broad powers for the president, although it does stipulate four-year term limits. There is still little civilian oversight of the military. And perhaps the most controversial part is the slightly expanded role and influence of Islam, which gives clerics a consulting role on legislation.

But for all the hope of change, observers say the document is quite similar to the 1971 constitution it's expected to replace. Zaid al Ali, a constitution expert who has studied the draft.

ZAID AL ALI: It'll come as a disappointment to radical Islamists who wanted to reshape society in an Islamic way - Salafis, amongst others. And it will also come as disappointment to hardcore revolutionaries who also wanted to - or were hoping to reshape society along different lines, of course.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: Constitution writers voted on articles for nearly 24 hours before adopting the document this morning. Many ordinary Egyptians who aren't threatening to burn the constitution in Tahrir Square will likely welcome the move. They're more interested in getting past an almost two-year transition marked by a dismal economy and lack of security.

But observers say Morsi's hopes that the constitution will solve the political crisis are unlikely. In fact, it may just deepen divisions. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.