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Egypt Divided as New Constitution Takes Effect

December 26, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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MARGARET WARNER: Next to Egypt, where a hotly debated new constitution went into effect today.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi addressed a deeply divided nation this evening, calling for his countrymen to unite behind the new constitution.

MOHAMMED MORSI, Egyptian President (through translator): To all Egyptian people, it’s a historic day. Egypt and Egyptians now have a free constitution. It’s not a grant from a king, imposed by a president or imposed by an occupier. It’s a constitution selected by the Egyptian people at their own free will.

MARGARET WARNER: The document, which Morsi signed into law last night, was approved by voters after months of street turmoil, and accusations that he and his Muslim Brotherhood rammed the charter through the ratification process.

Morsi argued that speedy action was critical to restore stability to Egypt. But opposition leaders, like Mohamed ElBaradei, insisted the document will enshrine Islamist rule, at the expense of hard-won liberties.

He spoke Monday on the NewsHour.

MOHAMED ELBARADEI, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate: It defies a lot of the basic human value we live by, like freedom of religion, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary.

One of the most dangerous parts in that constitution, that it opened the door for many controversial school of religious thoughts to — to seep through the legislative process and undermine the authority of the judiciary.

MARGARET WARNER: The constitution was approved by 64 percent of the national vote, but only a third of eligible voters had turned out. And in major cities like Cairo, majorities voted no.

This morning, those divisions were still apparent in Cairo.

MAN (through translator): It will certainly lead to stability. We can now begin to move forward. Investment can begin to come into Egypt. What more do people want?

WOMAN (through translator): We are very sad, and we never wanted the situation to be this way. We never wanted just one political group to rule. We wanted there to be unity.

MARGARET WARNER: For now, legislative power rests with the country’s upper house of parliament, which is dominated by Islamists. It was seated today. Parliamentary elections for the lower house take place in two months. The country’s lawmakers have no time to waste. The months of political unrest and uncertainty have disrupted the economy. Egypt’s credit rating was downgraded this week and its currency is trading at the lowest level in eight years.

In response, Morsi’s government has put off planned tax increases on various goods and imposed restrictions on the amount of money that can be taken out of the country.