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With Deadline Looming, Islamist-Led Egyptian Assembly Works on Constitution

November 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Jeffrey Brown talks to the New York Times' David Kirkpatrick about the progress of Egypt's Constitutional Assembly to wrap up work on the new Egyptian constitution before its deadline after many secular and liberal representatives have walked away from drawing table, leaving Islamists to create the road map for Egypt's future.
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JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I spoke to David Kirkpatrick, Cairo bureau chief of The New York Times.

David, thanks for joining us.

So, this constitutional assembly that’s moving very quickly on a constitution, tell us — explain what’s going on there.

DAVID KIRKPATRICK, The New York Times: Well, the assembly has been meeting for several weeks and trying to work faster and faster to finish a new constitution, the first constitution for Egypt since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak.

They had said recently that they would like a little more time. They were hoping to bring together a consensus of the Islamist majority and some of the secular minority in the assembly.

But at the last minute, they decided to jump the gun, to really rush things and wrap it up today. They are afraid that, on Sunday, the constitutional court here, the Supreme Constitutional Court, will rule against their assembly and try and dissolve it.

So they’re trying to wrap up their work before that can happen. Unfortunately, fear of that looming deadline has led to quite a bit of gridlock in the assembly.

As the Islamists who are running the show have moved faster and faster and tried to close off debit, a lot of the secular folks inside the assembly have boycotted, have walked away protesting the pressure they’re under to try to close things up before there’s enough debate.

And so what’s happened today is basically almost all the secular representatives are gone and the Islamists alone are forcing through a constitution which will then go to a referendum.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what’s at stake with this constitution? I mean, how — how far-reaching is it supposed to be? How much is it intended to rule Egypt’s politics and society going forward?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, this is it. This is the whole thing. This is the road map for Egypt’s future.

And I think in the heady first days of the revolution, many people imagined quite a sweeping overhaul of Egypt’s institutions. That’s not going to happen. After a rather convoluted transition process and under a pretty tight deadline, the drafters have decided to start with Egypt’s former constitution and tinker with that.

They didn’t look around the world and find the best possible models and start from scratch and put something together. They have been sort of twisting and turning the old constitution to try to tweak it to work a little better. And they have done some things that everyone here wanted.

They’re ending the old imperial presidency that Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors used to rule over Egypt as autocracies.

They’re barring torture. They’re ending detention without trial. On a lot of other areas, it’s a little bit of a muddle. There are protections for individual rights, but there’s also rather expansive guarantees against insults of individuals or prophets or other kinds of icons that could clash with freedom of expression.

And there’s some areas where I think most independent analysts would say it’s just not quite fully baked, that the document could use a little bit more time.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so we’re seeing these dueling demonstrations, but as of the moment, it doesn’t look as though President Morsi is backing down from his — what he said last week about taking more powers? And what does it look to you about how much that’s galvanized opposition?

DAVID KIRKPATRICK: Well, the opposition has certainly been galvanized by his moves.

There’s opposition unity really for the first time since he came to power or even before then. The secular political forces here have had a hard time coming together against the Islamists until now. But his power grab last week that set all this in motion was really just an attempt to put his own decrees above the reach of the courts just until the constitution was finished.

So, one thing that the assembly is now trying to do is to moot that conflict a little bit. He can now say and the assembly can say, look, we’re done. It’s all over.

His argument was that he needed to have those extra powers to try to protect the assembly from these courts, from the courts of Mubarak-appointed justices that he and some of the Islamists feel are really forces of counterrevolution.

Now that’s no longer so necessary. And he can begin to move very briskly, I think, towards a national referendum, and then the constitution will be able to stand on its own two feet.

Now, that’s not going to satisfy the opposition. They are convinced that this constitution, in addition to being hasty, is actually a blueprint for a kind of creeping Islamist takeover.

It’s true that the ultra-conservatives, who wanted to have something like a council of religious scholars ruling on legislation, or who want to impose religious law quite explicitly in the text, they have been shut down.

None of that worked. But there are some ambiguous, maybe not quite fully defined phrases about society charged with enforcing moral codes that liberals fear could be a kind of Trojan horse that over time under an Islamist government will become more and more robust ways to impose moral codes on the less religious.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times in Cairo, thanks so much.