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Egypt panel starts amending constitution despite political divisions

Female Egyptian supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood hold up portraits of Egypt's ousted president Mohamed Morsi during a rally in Cairo on July 21, 2013. Supporters of Morsi, who has been held in custody since his ouster on July 3, view the army's decision to overthrow the man they voted into power last year as an affront to democracy. Mohamed El-Shahed, AFP - Getty Images

CAIRO — A panel of legal experts started work on Sunday to revise Egypt's Islamist-tinged constitution, a vital first step on the road to fresh elections ordered by the army following its removal of Mohammed Morsi as president. 

Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, which has accused the army of orchestrating a military coup and denounced plans to revise the constitution, staged fresh rallies on Sunday to maintain pressure on the new, interim government.

Setting a highly ambitious time frame, the military wants new elections in about six months and has tasked a panel of 10 legal experts to present proposed changes to the constitution within 30 days for review before a broader-based body.

The original constitution was approved by a referendum last year, but critics said the text failed to protect human rights, minorities and social justice.

Ali Awad Saleh, a judge and the constitutional affairs adviser for the newly installed president, chaired Sunday's panel, saying it would spend the next week receiving ideas from "citizens, political parties, and all sides." 

Khaled Dawoud, a spokesman for the opposition umbrella National Salvation Front, called the start of the committee's work "a very positive development." 

The Muslim Brotherhood has shown no sign it is ready to engage with the new administration or the army, sticking firmly to its demand for the full restoration of Morsi, who has been held in an undisclosed location since his downfall on July 3.

A few thousand women, children and men marched from the site of a round-the-clock, pro-Morsi vigil in a Cairo suburb on Sunday, moving to within sight of the defense ministry, ringed by barbed wire and protected by well-armed security forces.

"Why, Sisi why, why did you kill our sisters?" the crowd chanted, referring to General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the defense minister who played a central role in forcing Morsi from office following mammoth street protests against the Islamist leader.

More than 100 people have died in violent clashes this month, including three women taking part in a pro-Morsi rally in the Nile Delta town of Mansoura on Friday.

CONSTITUTIONAL DOUBTS

Despite the continued domestic turmoil, the new government is trying to show the world that business is returning to normal in Cairo, with the foreign minister meeting Ahmad Jarba, the head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy told reporters on Saturday that Egypt remained committed to seeing change in Syria, but said the government was reviewing a decision by Morsi to cut all diplomatic ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Trying to burnish their democratic credentials, the Egyptian military has said the new constitution should be put to a referendum before planned parliamentary elections.

However, some analysts have expressed doubts about rushing to revise the text given the lack of political consensus that has clouded Egypt's faltering transition to democracy in the wake of the 2011 removal of veteran autocrat Hosni Mubarak.

"The problem is not amending or drafting the constitution, the problem is deciding the direction the country is headed," said Zaid Al-Ali of International IDEA, a Stockholm-based intergovernmental organization.

"Unless political agreement is reached between all of the major political actors in the country, we are going to head from one crisis to another," he said.

Many of Egypt's Arab allies have welcomed Morsi's demise and rushed to prop up the nation's wobbling finances.

Egypt's central bank said on Sunday it had received $2 billion in funds from Saudi Arabia, the latest installment of a $12 billion aid package pledged by Gulf Arab states.

The Egyptian stock exchange rose to a seven-week high on Sunday, encouraged by a lack of violence at weekend "anti-coup" protests in Cairo, hoping it indicated tensions are calming.

However, violence continued in the Sinai peninsula, where three members of Egypt's security forces were killed on Sunday by armed men. Islamist militants in the area have vowed to attack army and police targets there until Morsi is reinstated.

Egypt's minister of supplies, Mohamed Abu Shadi, told Reuters the government had moved swiftly to boost supplies of wheat to prevent any destabilizing bread shortages for the country's 84-million-strong population.

Abu Shadi said Morsi's government had made "incorrect calculations" regarding stocks, adding that these were "based on guesses, not on facts." 

Morsi was Egypt's first freely elected leader, but during his one year in office he drew criticism for failing to revive the ailing economy, restore security or build institutions. The Muslim Brotherhood say they were repeatedly thwarted by remnants of Mubarak's old government and forces hostile to them.