Egypt's army powers in focus as panel votes on charter

An Egyptian panel Sunday focuses on the army as it votes on a new constitution, the first step in a "democratic transition" pledged after the military ousted president Mohamed Morsi.

If adopted, the charter will be put to a popular referendum early next year, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections by mid-2014.

On Saturday's first day of voting, the 50-member panel approved 138 of the 247 articles of the draft.

These included one stipulating that Islamic sharia law will be the main source of legislation, as was also the case during the regime of toppled ruler Hosni Mubarak.

The other main article approved forbids the formation of religious parties or parties based on religious grounds.

On Sunday, articles 204 and 234 are in the spotlight.

These concern the military which removed the Islamist Morsi in July after millions of people called for his resignation following a turbulent single year in office.

Article 204 says that "no civilian can be tried by military judges, except for crimes of direct attacks on armed forces, military installations and military personnel".

Secular activists have demonstrated against the provision, saying it could be applied to protesters, journalists and dissidents.

Such fears deepened after prominent activist Alaa Abdel Fattah was arrested this week over an unauthorised demonstration against military trials of civilians.

Activists and rights groups say the draft charter also fails to curb the powers and privileges of the military.

Article 234 stipulates that the defence minister be appointed in agreement with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, although panel spokesman Mohammed Salmawy told AFP this clause will apply only for the first two presidential terms.

Army chief and defence minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is hugely popular and seen as the real power behind the interim government after he led Morsi's ouster.

The deposed Islamist leader himself appointed Sisi as defence minister in August 2012.

The draft constitution also ensures that the military's budget remains beyond civilian scrutiny.

Referendum 'the real test'

Political analyst Hassan Nafea said secular Egyptians who backed the military in removing Morsi would be angry over the army's powers and privileges under the new charter.

"That will trigger debates among the secular camp at a time when the new protest law has already angered them," the professor of political science at Cairo university, told AFP.

On November 24, interim president Adly Mansour approved a new law requiring demonstration organisers to give three days' written notice before a protest.

This angered secular groups, especially since the military justified its removal of Morsi by saying it was because of mass protests against him.

Nafea said the referendum will be the real test of the charter.

"I am not sure the constitution would be passed with a big majority by the Egyptian people... when (the) nation is polarised. People will not vote on the basis of whether the constitution is good or bad, but... on the basis of which camp you belong to," he said.

Media reaction to the new constitution was generally positive, however.

"Constitution on its way," said Sunday's headline in the independent newspaper Al-Masry al-Yom, while Al-Watan said: "Sweeping vote on future Constitution."

Panel chief Amr Mussa said Saturday the committee has "reached an agreement on the entire constitution which has been extensively revised".

The interim authorities suspended the constitution written under Morsi's presidency after his removal on July 3.

It had been drafted by a 100-member panel dominated by his Islamist allies.

The current panel includes representatives from civil society, political parties, institutions including the army and police, and the Coptic church.

It has just two Islamists, neither of whom is from Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood which won a series of polls after Mubarak's ouster.

The Brotherhood has been the target of a sweeping crackdown since August 14 that has seen more than 1,000 people killed and thousands more arrested.