Egypt parties vow to protect freedoms in constitution

Cairo, Egypt - Egyptian political parties and religious figures agreed Wednesday to protect civic freedoms in a new constitution, but steered clear of more contentious questions about the future of the nation after the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.

The principles were approved at a meeting sponsored by al-Azhar, Egypt's prestigious seat of Sunni Muslim learning and attended by senior Coptic Christian clerics, Islamic scholars, Islamists, liberals and youth activists.

The meeting, which was also attended by army-picked Prime Minister Kamal Ganzouri, was partly called as a show of unity before January 25, the anniversary of the revolt that toppled Mubarak.

The principles, read out by al-Azhar grand imam, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, including "completing the goals of the revolution" and guaranteeing freedoms.

But they avoided specifics on issues such as the powers of parliament and the president, potentially matters for heated debate in the new parliament which will pick a 100-member assembly that will draw up the constitution.

The new constitution is the centerpiece of efforts to set the country on a new democratic path. Liberals fear that sweeping gains by Islamists in elections will put faith-based parties in the driving seat and lead to more religious strictures.

Islamists insist they want an inclusive government and a constitution that represents all Egyptians.

"There was complete consensus between all national powers on (the fact) that all Egyptians are equal in rights and duties ... no one can dominate anything in Egypt," Mohamed Abul Ghar, head of the liberal Egyptian Social Democratic Party, said.

The head of Islamist al-Nour party, Emad Abdel Ghaffour, said the document provided only a general agreement. His party is trailing the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party in Egypt's parliamentary poll.

Islamists, who will dominate the new parliament, are expected to seek to strengthen the role of legislative body in the constitution and rein in the president's powers.

There were also differences during the meeting over how swiftly the ruling army should hand power to civilians.

The document committed to stick to the army timeline for a presidential vote in June.

But April 6, a youth group that played an key role in galvanizing anti-Mubarak protests, said there was no broad agreement on the timeline and said it wanted the army to hand over power to civilians sooner than June.

According to a plan announced by Sayed el-Badawi, the head of the liberal Wafd party, a referendum on the new constitution will be held on May 15 and a presidential vote would be held on June 20, in line with a previously announced army timetable. Badawi said the plan was agreed with the ruling military council.

But a youth leader said there was not agreement on that timeframe.

"There was agreement on the document of freedoms and completing the revolution ... There was no agreement on that date for handing over power," said April 6 leader Ahmed Maher.

Speaking after the meeting, Maher said April 6 wanted the "handover of power in the fastest time possible," adding that if the presidential election was in June the army should still hand power to any other elected body before that.

He also said April 6 would be protesting on January 25, though said others would be free to celebrate. "We will celebrate and protest together," he said.