AP Interview: Egypt's Moussa defends draft charter

HAMZA HENDAWI SARAH EL DEEB Associated Press Published:

CAIRO (AP) -- The chairman of a panel that wrote Egypt's draft constitution defended the document Tuesday as guaranteeing democracy and freedoms, but he offered cautious criticism of a recent law restricting street protests.

Amr Moussa, a former longtime Arab League chief and Egyptian foreign minister, spoke with The Associated Press as university students fought pitched street battles with police elsewhere in Cairo. Protesters demanding the reinstatement of Egypt's ousted president pelted security forces with rocks through white clouds of tear gas, rushing their wounded back inside the campus.

But Moussa was optimistic about the country's future.

"This is a constitution that answers to the requirements of the 21st century," he said. "The constitution is very clear on democracy and freedoms."

A copy of the draft charter obtained from Moussa's office states that men and women have equal rights and that the state must ensure "appropriate" representation of women in public jobs and the judiciary. It also criminalizes torture, discrimination and inciting hatred.

It asks the next parliament to adopt a law that would lift longtime restrictions on the construction and restoration of churches, thus allowing Christians -- about 10 percent of Egypt's estimated 90 million people -- to build and restore their places of worship.

Despite the draft's provisions on freedoms and equality, many activists say the military-backed government has shown itself to be intolerant of public dissent. They point to the closing down of Islamist TV channels loyal to Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president removed in a July coup after one year in office.

Activists also contend that police have resumed the brutal tactics that were customary during former President Hosni Mubarak's 29-year rule. On Tuesday, rights groups urged Egyptian authorities to establish a fact-finding committee to investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 people in a crackdown by the military-backed government against Morsi supporters.

A new law that places restrictions on street protests has also generated widespread criticism. Some of the most prominent leaders of the 2011 uprising against Mubarak are now facing trial for breaking the law or alleged assaults on police.

Moussa's take on the law appeared to strike a middle ground. He said peaceful demonstrations must be allowed and protected, but that something had to be done about violent protests that disrupt the daily life of Egyptians -- a thinly veiled reference to the near daily demonstrations by Islamists demanding Morsi's reinstatement.

"The law should have been further considered before being adopted," he said. "But we also have to agree that this is not the way to express views."

Critics of the draft constitution, drafted by a 50-member panel chaired by Moussa, contend that it has accorded the military special status by allowing it to select its own candidate for the job of defense minister and empowering it to bring civilians before military tribunals. Human rights activists say that at least 10,000 civilians were tried before military tribunals during the nearly 17 months of direct military rule after the uprising that toppled Mubarak.

But Moussa defended the powers given to the military, saying it is in the nation's interest at the present time.

"The armed forces are widely respected and are being attacked. They lose soldiers and officers every day," Moussa said. "There is a consensus that we are going through very dangerous circumstances. The army is under attack and we all have to stand firm behind it."

In the eyes of many in Egypt, the new constitution's adoption by a respectable margin in the national referendum would be tantamount to a vote of confidence in the military-backed administration installed in the wake of the coup. Besides the new constitution, a road map announced by the military on the day of the coup provides for parliamentary and presidential elections by the summer of 2014.

"I believe and expect that there will be a huge turnout," Moussa said at his office in parliament's upper house, or Shura Council, which is to be scrapped under the new constitution. As for the percentage of voters backing the draft charter, he said: "I really hope that it would be over 70 percent."

The 2012 constitution written under Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, was adopted by about 63 percent of the votes, but had a turnout of just over 30 percent. The latest document is a heavily amended version of that charter, with all the clauses that critics feared would lead to the creation of a purist Islamic state removed and the section on freedoms and liberties strengthened.

Government officials accuse the Muslim Brotherhood of escalating its protests and fueling student action to derail the coming vote on the constitution. The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies denounce the amendments as "illegitimate" and accuse authorities of seeking to eradicate the group. They routinely vow to bring leaders of the military coup to trial.

Tuesday's protests at Cairo University and three days of violent clashes at Al-Azhar University across the city further suggest that the Brotherhood is turning campuses into the main battleground in Egypt's political turmoil. There have been campus clashes since the school year began in September.

At Cairo University, the protesters clashed with security forces for about four hours Tuesday after trying to march out of the sprawling campus toward a large intersection with a bustling commercial neighborhood, a security official said.

The official said students lobbed plastic bags filled with water at security forces outside the university. Police fired tear gas to disperse the crowd, set up barbed wire to close off access to the university and deployed more armored vehicles as reinforcements, the official said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

AP footage showed students hurling rocks at police lines through thick white clouds of tear gas, and others carrying the wounded inside the campus. The students chanted Allahu akbar, or God is great, many of them partially covering their faces to fend off the tear gas.

Hazem Tarek, a student leader at Cairo University, said at least four students were wounded by shotgun pellets.

Small clashes also broke out Tuesday at two universities in the southern city of Assuit, where police fired tear gas at rock-throwing students. Assiut's security chief, police Maj. Gen. Abu el-Qassem Abu-Deif, said 18 students were arrested.