Mursi seeks way out of crisis

Egypt President Mohammed Mursi. Picture: AFP

CAIRO - The body writing Egypt's new constitution began a session to vote on a final draft on Thursday, a move President Mohamed Mursi's allies in the Muslim Brotherhood hope will help end a crisis prompted by a decree expanding his powers.

Mursi is expected to call for national unity in a public address at 7.00 p.m. (1700 GMT) to ease the crisis, which has set off a week of protests and threatens to derail early signs of economic recovery from two years of turmoil.

In an interview with Time, Mursi said the majority supported his decree. But he added: "If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week will stop."

Two people have been killed and hundreds injured in countrywide protests ignited by the decree Mursi issued last Thursday, which gave him sweeping powers and placed them beyond legal challenge, deepening the divide between the newly empowered Islamists and their opponents.

Setting the stage for more confrontation, the Muslim Brotherhood and its Islamist allies have called for pro-Mursi protests on Saturday in Tahrir Square, where a sit-in by the president's opponents entered a seventh day on Thursday.

The Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that backed Mursi for president in June elections, hopes to end the crisis by replacing the controversial decree with an entirely new constitution to be approved by popular referendum.

"May God bless us on this day," Hossam el-Gheriyani, the speaker of the constituent assembly, told members at the start of the session to vote on each of the 234 articles in the draft, which will go to Mursi for approval and then to a plebiscite.

It is a gamble based on the Islamists' belief that they can mobilise voters to win the referendum. They have won all elections held since Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year.

But critics say the bid to finish the constitution quickly could make matters worse.

The constitution is one of the main reasons Mursi and his Islamist backers are at loggerheads with opponents who are boycotting the 100-member constitutional assembly. They say the Islamists have hijacked it to impose their vision of the future.

The assembly's legitimacy has been called into question by a series of court cases demanding its dissolution.Its standing has also been hit by the withdrawal of members including church representatives and liberals.

The Brotherhood argues that approval of the constitution in a referendum would bury all arguments about both the legality of the assembly and the text it has written in the last six months.

Once the assembly approves the draft it will go to Mursi for ratification, a step expected at the weekend. He must then call the referendum within 15 days.

Once the constitution is approved in a referendum, legislative powers will pass straight from Mursi to the upper house of parliament, in line with an article in the new constitution, assembly members said.