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Mon 2 Dec 2013 10:17 AM

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Egypt’s new draft constitution may see presidential vote held first

Army chief Al Sisi seen as front-runner, but keeps nation guessing

Egypt’s new draft constitution may see presidential vote held first
Egyptians, one holding a poster of General Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, pose with soldiers as they gather on Tahrir Square on October 6, 2013 in the capital Cairo. (AFP/Getty Images)

Egypt's political transition was pitched into
uncertainty on Sunday when a draft constitution was amended to allow a
presidential election to be held before parliamentary polls, indicating a
potential change in the army's roadmap.

The roadmap unveiled when the military ousted
Islamist President Mohamed Mursi in July said a parliamentary election should
take place before the presidential one.

But the draft finalised on Sunday by the 50-member
constitutent assembly avoids saying which vote should happen first, leaving the
decision up to President Adly Mansour, seen as a front for army rule since he
was installed to head the interim administration.

The draft also says the "election
procedures" must start within six months of the constitution's
ratification, meaning Egypt may not have an elected president and parliament
until the second half of next year.

A major milestone in Egypt's political roadmap, the
constitution must be approved in a referendum expected this month or next. Amr
Moussa, chairman of the constituent assembly, said the draft constitution would
be handed to Mansour on Tuesday.

Moussa, former Arab League secretary general, was a
candidate in the presidential election won by Mursi last year.

The draft reflects how the balance of power has
shifted in Egypt since the secular-minded generals ousted Mursi, the country's
first freely elected head of state, after mass protests against him and the
Muslim Brotherhood.

The new constitution could lead to an outright ban
on Islamist parties and strengthens the political grip of the already powerful
military establishment that has put itself squarely back at the heart of power
since toppling Mursi.

The assembly finished voting on the draft after
talks on the order of next year's elections stretched late into Sunday night.

The changes follow debate fuelled by concern that
weak secular parties are not ready for parliamentary elections, sources
familiar with the discussions have said.

Seeing army chief Abdel Fattah Al Sisi as the
front-runner for president, some assembly members wanted the presidential
election held before legislative polls or even at the same time so that a
strong presidential candidate can forge an electoral alliance for the
parliamentary race.

Al Sisi led the July 3 overthrow of Mursi and is
widely seen as the lead candidate for the presidency.

While Brotherhood sympathisers hold him responsible
for the deaths of hundreds of Mursi supporters killed in a crackdown on the
movement, other Egyptians see him as the kind of strong man needed to restore
stability after three years of turmoil.

Al Sisi has been lionised by state media since
toppling Mursi.

As they wait for Al Sisi to make his intentions clear,
none of the candidates defeated by Mursi in last year's presidential election,
such as Moussa, have declared they will run. However, Hamdeen Sabahi, a leftist
who came third, has strongly hinted he would like to.

A spokeswoman for his Popular Current, Heba Yassin,
said holding the presidential election ahead of the parliamentary vote would
meet the demands of people who took to the streets against Mursi on June 30 to
demand an early presidential vote.

Mursi's Brotherhood won all elections after
President Hosni Mubarak's downfall in 2011, drawing on its position as Egypt's
best-organised party to defeat leftists and liberals in parliamentary and
presidential polls.

But the state has cracked down hard on the
Brotherhood since Mursi's ouster, arresting thousands of its supporters
including many of its leaders. The group says it wants nothing to do with the
army-planned transition.

The draft constitution widens the already broad
privileges enjoyed by the army by requiring the approval of the Supreme Council
of the Armed Forces for the choice of a defence minister to serve for two full
presidential terms from the moment the document is ratified.

It does not indicate how the minister of defence
could be sacked or who has the authority to fire him.

It also allows the military to try civilians in
military courts - a holdover from previous constitutions that is strongly
opposed by democracy activists. The draft does, however, specify the crimes for
which a civilian can be tried by the military.

The constitution will replace one signed into law
by Mursi last year after it was passed in a referendum. The new text strips out
Islamist-inspired additions introduced by the Islamist-dominated assembly that
drafted it.

Mursi's fall set off the bloodiest bout of internal
strife in Egypt's modern history.

Armed attacks on the security forces have become
commonplace, and some 200 policemen and soldiers have been killed in what the
government casts as a war on terrorism waged by Islamist militants. The
Brotherhood says it is peacefully resisting the army takeover.

In a reminder of the simmering tension, security
forces fired teargas in Cairo's Tahrir Square to disperse anti-government
protesters. It appeared to be the biggest protest by Brotherhood supporters in
Tahrir Square since Mursi's downfall.

"The people want to topple the regime,"
chanted several hundred protesters. "With our blood and souls we sacrifice
for you, Islam," chanted some. One scaled a lamp post to hang a picture of
Mursi.

Others flashed the four-finger hand sign denoting
sympathy with the hundreds of Mursi supporters shot dead by the security forces
when they broke up their Cairo sit-ins on August 14.

Army vehicles moved in to drive the demonstrators
away and later sealed off the square completely. Some passersby shouted abuse
at the protesters, others waved in support. Earlier, protesters set a police
truck ablaze near Cairo University.

The government says it is determined to implement a
law passed last week that heavily restricts protests. Criticised by the United
States, the law has hardened fears of pro-democracy campaigners about the
future of political freedoms in Egypt.

Ahmed Maher, one of two leading secular activists
detained for calling protests in defiance of the law, was released on Sunday.
The other, Alaa Abdel Fattah, was ordered detained for a further 15 days. Both
are symbols of the historic 2011 uprising that led to Mubarak's downfall.

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