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Protests over draft of charter roil Cairo

Critics decry proposed powers

Tens of thousands marched to the presidential palace Tuesday in Cairo, protesting the country’s draft constitution. Police fired tear gas, then retreated inside the compound.

AMR ABDALLAH DALSH/REUTERS

Tens of thousands marched to the presidential palace Tuesday in Cairo, protesting the country’s draft constitution. Police fired tear gas, then retreated inside the compound.

CAIRO — Egyptian riot police fired tear gas Tuesday night at tens of thousands of demonstrators who were converging on the presidential palace here to protest the country’s new draft constitution, which was rushed to completion last week by an assembly dominated by Islamists.

After firing one round of gas canisters, police quickly retreated inside the walls of the palace grounds, apparently to avoid further clashes.

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The huge scale of the protests Tuesday dealt a blow to the legitimacy of the new charter, which goes before the country’s voters in a referendum scheduled for Dec. 15.

The secular and anti-Islamist groups that organized the protests say that the draft constitution allows religious authorities too much influence over the Egyptian state, and have even likened it to the blueprints drawn up for Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini before the 1979 revolution there.

Protest organizers are still debating whether to urge Egyptians to vote against the constitution or to boycott the referendum entirely.

Either way, many have their eyes on elections for a new parliament that would be held two months after the constitution is approved.

They hope to capitalize on a public backlash against the heavy-handed tactics employed in the constitution-drafting process by President Mohammed Morsi and his Islamist allies to gain seats in the new parliament and diminish the Islamists’ political power.

The first parliament elected after the overthrow of the strongman Hosni Mubarak was dominated by Islamists, but that body was dissolved by the courts, and Morsi has been governing by decree since then.

The country’s private media outlets mounted a protest of their own against the draft constitution’s limits on freedom of expression. Eleven newspapers withheld publication Tuesday, and at least three private television networks said they would not broadcast Wednesday.

“You are reading this message because Egypt Independent objects to continued restrictions on media liberties, especially after hundreds of Egyptians gave their lives for freedom and dignity,’’ declared a short statement set against a black background on the website of Egypt Independent, the English-language sister publication of the country’s largest independent daily, Al Masry Al Youm, on Tuesday morning. (By the afternoon, the website was back to normal.)

The one-day blackout and the mass march in Cairo were the most pointed actions yet in a push by liberal and secular groups to block the draft constitution, which was approved Friday by the Islamist-dominated assembly despite the boycotts and objections of almost all its non-Islamist delegates.

Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party, has sought to claim authority above any judicial review so that his Islamist allies could get the constitution through quickly, an act that itself prompted loud protests.

Morsi argued that he needed the powers to overcome potential obstructions from judges appointed by Mubarak, or from secular opponents who he said were seeking to derail the transition to democracy.

His opponents say the Islamists are trying to ram through a flawed constitution that will allow them to push Egyptian society in the direction of religious conservatism.

Among other criticisms, analysts and human rights groups say the draft contains loopholes that could eviscerate its provisions for freedom of expression. Although it ostensibly declares a right to free speech, the constitution also expressly prohibits ‘‘insults’’ to ‘‘religious prophets.’’

The charter declares that one purpose of the news media is to uphold public morality and the ‘‘true nature of the Egyptian family,’’ and it specifies that government authorization will be required to operate a television station or a website.

‘‘The protection of freedom of expression is fatally undermined by all the provisions that limit it,’’ said Heba Morayef, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has studied the text. ‘‘On paper, they have not protected freedom of expression. It is designed to let the government limit those rights on the basis of ‘morality’ or the vague concept of ‘insult.’ ”

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