Egypt body votes on constitution
An assembly charged with writing Egypt's new constitution began voting on its final draft today, a process President Mohamed Morsi hopes will help to end a crisis which erupted when the Islamist gave himself sweeping new powers.
Mr Morsi's decree last week halting court challenges to his decisions, which provoked protests and violence across the country, will lapse if Egyptians approve the new constitution.
Speedy completion of the draft would allow a referendum to be held as soon as mid-December. But Mr Morsi's opponents have attacked it as an attempt to rush through a text they say has been hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies.
In an interview with Time, Mr Morsi said the majority supported his decree but added: "If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week will stop."
The president is expected to speak to the nation today in an effort to ease the crisis, which has set off a week of protests and threatens to derail some early signs of an economic recovery after two years of turmoil.
Two people have been killed and hundreds injured in the protests since last Thursday's decree, which deepened the divide between the newly-empowered Islamists and their opponents.
Setting the stage more tension, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies have called for pro-Morsi rallies on Saturday. But officials from the Brotherhood's party changed the venue and said they would avoid Tahrir Square, where a sit-in by the president's opponents entered a seventh day today.
The Brotherhood, that backed Mr Morsi for president in June elections, hopes to end the crisis by replacing the controversial decree with an entirely new constitution.
"May God bless us on this day," Hossam el-Gheriyani, the speaker of the constituent assembly, told members at the start of the session to vote on each of the 234 articles in the draft, which will go to Mr Morsi for approval and then to the plebiscite.
It is a gamble based on the Islamists' belief that they can mobilise voters to win the referendum. They have won all elections held since Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year.
But critics say the bid to finish the constitution quickly could make matters worse.
The constitution is one of the main reasons the Islamists are at loggerheads with opponents who are boycotting the 100-member constitutional assembly, saying their voices were not being heard.
The assembly's legitimacy has been called into question by a series of court cases demanding its dissolution. Its standing has also suffered from the withdrawal of members including church representatives of the Christian minority and liberals.
The Brotherhood argues that approval of the constitution in a referendum would bury all arguments about both the legality of the assembly and the text it has written in the last six months.
Once the assembly backs the draft it will go to Mr Morsi for approval, a step expected at the weekend. He must then call the referendum within 15 days. If Egyptians approve the constitution, legislative powers will pass straight from Mr Morsi to the upper house of parliament, in line with an article in the new constitution, assembly members said.