Despite boycotts from most non-Islamist forces and large anti-Morsi demonstrations across the country, the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly has surprised everybody by announcing it will put the completed draft of Egypt's new constitution to a final vote on Thursday.
At the end of a marathon nine-hour session on Wednesday, the assembly also announced another major decision. It rammed through an article that will give the Islamist-dominated Shura Council (upper house of parliament) the power to issue legislation until a new lower house of parliament is elected.
The announcement came after President Mohamed Morsi on 22 November gave the assembly two additional months to reach a consensus on the new charter.
Granting the Shura Council legislative power could cause a backlash on the street. To most liberal and leftist forces, it makes no difference that Islamist President Mohamed Morsi or the Islamist-dominated Shura Council have legislative power because both are subject to the control of one force – the Muslim Brotherhood and its Salafist allies.
At the beginning of Wednesday’s session, assembly chairman Hossam El-Gheriany told members that “all of you should come at 10am tomorrow morning to have the honour of attending the vote on the new constitution.” El-Gheriany also urged members who had withdrawn from the assembly to attend and not miss "a glorious day.”
“You had a hand in drafting this constitution and you should be here tomorrow on a great day to put the final touches to this work.
“I have contacted several members who withdrew from the assembly, such as the poet Farouk Guwaida, Ayman Nour and representatives of the Church, appealing to them to attend tomorrow and have the honour of endorsing Egypt’s constitution,” he added.
The assembly’s secretary-general, Amr Darrag, a member of Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), told parliamentary correspondents on Wednesday that “the debate on the final draft of the constitution will be completed today and be followed by a final vote on Thursday.”
After the vote, the final draft of the 230-article constitution is expected to be sent directly to President Morsi and voted on in a national referendum within two weeks.
El-Gheriany told the assembly members last week that they should be prepared to work day and night until Thursday to finish the constitution.
However, most political observers expected the final vote to be conducted next week. “It was expected that the final draft would first be released for public debate for a few days and then put to a final vote afterwards, but this did not happen,” said Mohamed Abdel-Alim Dawoud of the liberal Wafd party, who had withdrawn from the assembly.
Dawoud argued that El-Gheriany, a former judge with Islamist leanings, might have been subjected to pressure from President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to wrap up the debate and put it to a vote this week.
“The Brotherhood might think passing the final draft of the constitution can help them contain popular anger directed at President Morsi, such as was expressed at Tuesday’s huge demonstration in Tahrir Square, and get him out of the current political crisis,” said Dawoud.
“The decision to rush out the vote will only serve to pour oil on the fire and direct more anger at Morsi and his group [the Brotherhood]. It will exacerbate the impression that the assembly is under the Brotherhood's tight control and that the constitution is tailored to serve their political ends.”
Worse, Dawoud added, giving the Shura Council legislative power is a very dangerous development “because most non-Islamist forces do not trust an Islamist-dominated upper house to issue laws that will serve democracy.”
It is not clear how the assembly will conduct the vote in the absence of around one quarter of its original members (or one third of original and reserve members). According to internal rules, the first reading of the final draft must gain 67 votes to pass. If this fails, a second reading can pass it with 57 votes. In both cases, Islamists – the Muslim Brotherhood and ultraconservative Salafists – have enough assembly members to pass the constitution.
A major reason for the non-Islamist boycott of the assembly was that they wanted a majority of 75 per cent for the constitution to pass.
“This could have reflected consensus rather than the imposition of control by the majority,” said former presidential candidate and Mubarak-era foreign minister Amr Moussa, who was the first assembly member to withdraw.
The drafting process has been expedited in recent days with 50 articles debated since Saturday, most of them regulating controversial bodies like the judiciary, the army, the presidency, the press and the media.