Egypt Rushes To Pass Draft Constitution Amid Protest

A new draft constitution will be unveiled in Cairo on Thursday, but it is far from clear whether the move will help resolve or deepen the crisis between President Mohamed Morsi and Egypt's judges. Robert Siegel talks with Leila Fadel, who is in Cairo.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Egypt's president appears to be trying to rush the drafting of a constitution in an effort to pull the country out of political crisis. This after President Mohammed Morsi issued a series of controversial decrees last week that exempted his decisions from judicial oversight.

The country's constitution writing body has been working all day and into the night to pass the draft. It will eventually be put to a nationwide referendum. But the move may backfire as critics say the document is illegitimate.

NPR's Leila Fadel joins us from Cairo to discuss the latest. And, Leila, first, give us a sense of who's upset about this draft constitution and what are their concerns?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Well, I think the biggest concern is the timing. This is an Islamist body - dominated body, mostly allies of Mohammed Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood. And a quarter of this assembly has walked out, and that quarter is mostly liberal, leftist, secularist and representatives of the church. So people are saying this doesn't represent a full spectrum of Egypt's society.

And on top of that, the draft still has broad powers for the president. It still has pretty much very little oversight of the military and its establishment and has a little bit of an Islamist bent, while observers are saying actually it's quite a mediocre kind of status quo constitution that doesn't deviate that much from the 1971 constitution that they had previously.

SIEGEL: So if there is a vote after the walkout, how would that affect the criticism being leveled at President Morsi for effectively giving himself unchecked powers?

FADEL: Well, I think it will actually intensify the criticism. We're already hearing from people like Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate. He told a local channel today that this period of time in Egypt will go into the trash can of history.

People are seeing this as Mohammed Morsi digging in his heels, saying, I'm going to keep this temporary unchecked power. And on top of that, I'm going to push this constitution through at a time that the country is extremely divided. People call him sort of a majority ruler, only thinking about what the majority is thinking during a time that Egypt is going through such turmoil.

SIEGEL: Now President Morsi addressed the nation tonight in an interview on Egyptian state television. What did he have to say?

FADEL: He basically repeated what he had said earlier to his supporters when he first issued these decrees. Trust me, I won't be a dictator. Yes, for now I have unchecked powers. I have every branch in my own hand. But in a few months, when the constitution is in place, all the powers will be in the right place. And I still respect all institutions. Just - this is an exceptional moment. So trust me, but I'm not taking back these decrees. I'm digging in my heels, and things will work out. I'm the elected president. Don't ask questions, basically.

SIEGEL: And if this constituent assembly does pass this constitution, what happens next?

FADEL: Well, that's an interesting question because the judges are on strike in this country, and they have to oversee a public referendum. So if this does pass and it goes to referendum, it's unclear how he'll be able to put it to a vote when the judges won't oversee the vote.

SIEGEL: And this confusion, did you get any sense that Egyptians are at all calmed by the appearance on television of President Morsi, or are people worried about the uncertainty over the constitution?

FADEL: I think there's a real concern about the uncertainty of the future of the country more than the constitution, but the divisions themselves are what's worrying people. People want political stability. And if Morsi is able to get the nation onto a track of political stability, he can probably get the nation on his side. But if it continues this way, it will really chip at his popularity.

SIEGEL: Economic life in Cairo, has it come back to something resembling normal over the months?

FADEL: No, this is still a major complaint of Egyptians. We want jobs. We want our economy to stabilize. We want true reform. And that's, I think, what the president has been betting on, saying I can fix these things if I get this temporary unchecked power to put the country on the right path.

SIEGEL: OK. Thank you, Leila.

FADEL: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in Cairo.

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