Egypt rushes out new charter amid turmoil over Morsi powers

A divisive panel boycotted by liberals and Christians was set to vote on a draft new Egyptian constitution, amid mounting protests over President Mohamed Morsi's assumption of sweeping powers.

Morsi insisted in a magazine interview Wednesday that he will surrender his controversial new powers once a new constitution is in place, hoping to assuage the growing anger among people who thought their role in the Arab Spring nearly two years ago would bring a new era of democracy.

Morsi dismissed criticism of his power grab and said the protests on the streets of Cairo were a positive sign that Egypt is indeed on the path to democracy after overthrowing dictator Hosni Mubarak in February 2011.

"The world stage is very difficult. It's not easy to be on the world stage," admitted Morsi, who won a cliffhanger election in June, speaking briefly in English at the start of an interview with Time magazine.

"If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week will stop," he said, wiping his hands to stress his point. "I hope, when we have a constitution, what I have issued will stop immediately," he added.

Morsi's remarks amounted to a plea to the international community for patience after his decision to grant himself sweeping powers until the new constitution is ratified in a referendum.

Asked about warnings from critics that he wants to become a new pharaoh, Morsi repeated "New pharaoh?" disbelievingly, before letting out a big laugh. "Can I be?" he asked incredulously. "I've been suffering, personally."

The Islamist leader just last week gave the constituent assembly an additional two months to complete its work.

But as the top court went on strike over his power grab, the panel wrapped up its deliberations and readied for a vote among its members, its chief Ahmed Darrag said.

The official MENA news agency reported that the panel would vote on the draft on Thursday morning. It will then be put to a referendum.

The head of the Islamist-dominated panel, Hossam al-Gheriani, urged the liberal, leftist and Coptic Christian members who walked out to "come back and finish the discussion on Thursday".

"Tomorrow will be a great day," Gheriani said.

The surprise move came in the face of deep rifts over the constituent assembly, which critics have slammed for failing to represent all Egyptians.

Anger was exacerbated following the decree by Morsi granting himself sweeping powers and barring the courts from dissolving the panel.

The Supreme Constitutional Court had been due to review the legality of the drafting committee on Sunday, but its fate hangs in the balance amid the constitutional vacuum created by Morsi's decree.

Human rights groups have criticised the move to rush through the constitution.

"This is not a healthy moment to be pushing through a constitution because this is an extremely divisive moment," Human Rights Watch Egypt director Heba Morayef told AFP.

"Human rights groups have very serious concerns about some of the rights protections in the latest drafts we've seen," she said.

The court's strike action has put Morsi's decisions beyond judicial scrutiny and protesters have flocked back to Cairo's Tahrir Square, epicentre of the protest movement that toppled Mubarak in February 2011.

Tens of thousands protested in the square on Tuesday, in the largest opposition rally since Morsi's election in June.

The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist allies have called their own protest in Tahrir for Saturday.

Clashes between police and protesters raged on Wednesday with the two sides exchanging volleys of tear gas and stones.

The outskirts of the square have seen sporadic skirmishes for nine days since a protest was begun to mark the first anniversary of deadly confrontations with police.

Morsi's decree helped consolidate the long-divided opposition, with former UN nuclear watchdog chief Mohamed ElBaradei and ex-Arab League chief Amr Mussa uniting with former presidential candidates in the face of Morsi and the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, on whose ticket the president ran for office.

The Brotherhood and the secular-leaning opposition had stood side by side in Tahrir Square in 2011 as they fought to bring down veteran strongman Mubarak and his regime.

But since Mubarak's ousting, the Islamist movement has been accused of monopolising politics and backtracking on a promise not to field a candidate for the presidency.

Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party says his temporary measures are aimed at speeding up a seemingly endless transition.

US officials said Washington was closely following the drama unfolding in Egypt, with a warning that Cairo could put vast amounts of international aid at stake if it veers off the democratic course.

But the International Monetary Fund said on Tuesday that Egypt can still access a $4.8 billion loan agreed last week as long as there is "no major change" in its reform commitments.

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