CAIRO — A panel in Egypt tasked with amending the country’s suspended constitution began voting Saturday on hundreds of changes to it, the first step in an effort authorities say will move the country toward democratic rule following a July military coup that ousted its president.
The 50-member committee started voting electronically on each of the 247 articles, most of them changes to existing portions of the constitution, while some represent new additions to it. The voting process, aired on state television unlike previous sessions held behind closed doors, is expected to last two days.
The panel will hand in the draft to interim President Adly Mansour, who has a month to call for a public vote on it. That’s first step in a military-backed transition plan after the July 3 popularly backed coup that ousted Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. The plan calls for parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
The committee is changing Egypt’s December 2012 constitution, drafted largely by Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies. Rights groups and secularists widely criticized that constitution for restricting personal liberties and strengthening the role of Islamic law in the country’s legislation.
Hours before voting began on the constitution, panel leader Amr Moussa told reporters he hoped everyone supported the constitution.
“It is the transition from disturbances to stability and from economic stagnation to development,” Moussa said.
The panel has a Tuesday deadline to send the draft to the presidency.
This year, the only Islamist party taking part in the amending process is the ultraconservative Salafist party al-Nour.
The voting comes as the country is still engulfed in turmoil and protests.
A new protest law enacted Nov. 24 allows security agencies to bar protests not previously reported to the country’s Interior Ministry, while also setting prison terms and high fines for violators. It appears aimed at breaking the back of the near-daily protests by Islamists supporting Morsi and others who oppose the country’s military-backed interim government. However, it has angered secular allies of the current government who have been largely mute since Morsi’s ouster.
On Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin said he opposed the new protest law because it restricts the right to demonstrate and was not adopted by an elected parliament. The liberal politician called on authorities to review the law to show that the state was ready to listen to the country’s secular activists, who have been staging several protests in defiance of the law.
“It is not a shame and it does not detract from the prestige of the state to reconsider a law that will only widen the gap between the state and the youth,” Bahaa-Eldin said on his official Facebook page.
Since the law’s adoption, security forces forcefully dispersed several rallies and detained protesters. A student was killed Thursday when police put down a march by Islamists from Cairo University. Saturday, some 130 professors and administrative staff of the university’s engineering department called for a strike over the student’s death.
A few miles from the constitutional committee headquarters, brief clashes broke out when riot police with shields, batons and helmets chased protesters amid a thick cloud of gas. The demonstration was held near a Cairo court to condemn the detention of 24 activists arrested Tuesday while taking part in a protest that was not authorized by authorities.
Among protesters Saturday was Ahmed Maher, leader of the April 6 youth group that had a leading role in the 2011 uprising against longtime president Hosni Mubarak. He later turned himself into prosecutors over an arrest warrant for him on charges of inciting demonstrations against the new protest law. State television said prosecutors ordered Maher held until Sunday as investigators examine his case.
Meanwhile, in the restive southern province of Minya, unknown gunmen shot dead a Christian, days after three people died in sectarian clashes, authorities said. And in the Sinai Peninsula, three Egyptian military raids on suspected militants killed three, including a leading jihadi, said security officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief reporters.
Officials said it was the first time soldiers raided the area of al-Nasra in Sheikh Zuweyid in northern Sinai. The suspected militants belong to a group responsible for bombings in 2005.
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