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AP Interview: Egypt's Moussa defends draft charter

Wednesday - 12/11/2013, 3:18am  ET

Amr Moussa, the chairman of Egypt's 50-member panel tasked with amending its Islamist-drafted constitution, talks during an interview with The Associated Press at the Shoura Council in Cairo, Egypt, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2013. Egypt’s veteran diplomat and liberal politician Moussa said a constitution drafted by a 50-member panel he chaired will offer unprecedented guarantees for democracy, individual freedoms and gender equality. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Associated Press

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.

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