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Panel unpicks Egypt's Islamist constitution

Panel dominated by secularist parties and liberal public figures has convened for the first time to look into key revisions of disputed articles of Islamist-backed 2012 constitution.
Former presidential candidate and opposition leader Amr Moussa addresses the 50-member panel that has been tasked with drawing up a new constitution.
Former presidential candidate and opposition leader Amr Moussa addresses the 50-member panel that has been tasked with drawing up a new constitution.

CAIRO // A 50-member panel asked to amend Egypt's Islamist-backed 2012 constitution convened for the first time yesterday to look into key revisions of disputed articles.

In its first session, the panel dominated by secularist parties and liberal public figures, elected as its president Amr Moussa, a former Arab League chief and presidential candidate, and worked on drafting bylaws.

The panel is convening according to a timetable laid out by the military-backed government five days after it forced Mohammed Morsi out of the presidency on July 3 following demonstrations by millions calling for his removal.

The panel has two months to finalise constitutional amendments that have already been proposed by a 10-member expert panel. The 50-member panel, selected by the interim president, is supposed to be a means that ensures the public can influence the charter before it goes to voters for a referendum.

"I feel optimism as we are paving the road for a new era where the constitution will be its base," Mr Moussa said after being elected. The session was broadcast live on state TV.

The country is scheduled to head to presidential and parliamentary elections early next year as part of a fast-track plan aimed at returning to democratic rule.

This is the third time since Egypt's 2011 uprising against the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak that the constitution has been amended. It was amended by a military-appointed panel after Mr Mubarak's overthrow and a new constitution was adopted in 2012 under Mr Morsi.

Liberals and secularists said then their objections to many of its clauses were ignored.

This time around, Mr Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood - many of whose leaders have been rounded up in a mass crackdown - is not represented on the panel.

Egypt's state prosecutor said yesterday that the Brotherhood's leader, Mohamed Badie, would stand trial in a second case over clashes in which several demonstrators were killed, judicial sources said. More than 2,000 Brotherhood members have been arrested since Mr Morsi's overthrow.

The ultraconservative Salafist party Al Nour, the only religiously based party that supported Mr Morsi's removal, has not decided yet on whether to participate in the panel or not.

The party's sole representative, Bassem Al Zarqa, was absent yesterday.

Al Nour had expressed concerns that the secularist majority would remove articles that could give Sharia a bigger role in legislation.

The panel includes three representatives of Al Azhar, the Sunni world's most prestigious learning institute. There are representatives from professional unions, universities and the arts.

It has four representatives from youth groups involved in protests against Mr Morsi and Mr Mubarak. There are also three Christian clerics, but no private citizens who are Christian. The panel was criticised for having only five women.

Meanwhile yesterday, the military's spokesman said it was conducting "the largest military operation to purge Sinai of terrorism".

Apache helicopters hit targets in north Sinai near the Rafah border crossing with the Islamist Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, witnesses said.

The operation has so far killed "nine terrorists" and destroyed militant hideouts and weapons depots, said the spokesman, Col Ahmed Aly.

The army had said the nine militants were killed on Saturday in north Sinai when it launched an air and ground offensive in which nine suspects were also arrested and three arms caches destroyed.

Shoulder-fired SAM-7 missiles were found in a mosque and in homes of suspected militants in the southern part of Sheikh Zuweyid town, near the border with the Gaza Strip and Israel, Gen Osama Askar, commander of the Third Army, said.

Western officials have said that thousands of shoulder-launched missiles went missing from Libyan arsenals during and after the country's 2011 civil war.

The operation will "last several days", Col Aly said.

* Associated Press with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

Updated: September 9, 2013 04:00 AM