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Egypt’s top court to rule on constitutional panel

Delay may give Islamists time to draft document

CAIRO — An Egyptian court asked the country’s highest tribunal Tuesday to rule on whether to disband the body tasked with writing a new constitution. That could give Islamists time to finish drafting the document before a legal ruling.

It’s the latest twist in a bitter struggle between Islamists and their secular rivals over the constitution. The Islamists, who dominate the constitutional assembly, are racing to put a draft before a public referendum before the judges rule.

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The work and the composition of the 100-member constitutional assembly have been the subject of a fierce debate. The focus is the potential for stricter implementation of Islamic Shariah law and empowerment of religious scholars that liberals fear could signal a turn toward an Iran-style theocratic state.

Along with the contentious role of religion in the nation’s affairs, Islamists and liberals are haggling over other proposed articles relating to women rights, freedom of worship, presidential powers, immunity for the military from civilian oversight, and undercutting the powers of the Supreme Constitutional Court.

Supporters of the panel say it was set up by an elected Parliament and broadly represents Egypt’s political factions. Critics counter that the process is dominated by majority Islamists, such as the new president, Mohammed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, and more-radical groups.

A new constitution would be a key step in establishing a democracy to replace the regime of longtime president Hosni Mubarak, ousted last year in an uprising led by progressive, secular activists. They rallied public anger over poverty, Mubarak’s grip on power, rampant corruption, and abuses.

But in the nearly 20 months since then, Islamists have emerged as the strongest political force. Morsi was elected president after the Brotherhood and the more-conservative Salafis party swept parliamentary elections, leaving the liberals with minimal representation. The Parliament was later disbanded.

Instead of ruling on a petition submitted by liberals challenging the legitimacy of the panel, Judge Nazih Tangho of the High Administrative Court sent the case Tuesday to Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court.

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