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Egypt panel begins voting on draft constitution

CAIRO (AP) — The panel amending Egypt's suspended constitution began voting Saturday on some 250 changes, the first step toward democratic rule following the July military coup that ousted the country's president.

The constitution before the 50-member committee makes drastic changes in ensuring civil liberties, fighting discrimination, criminalizing torture, protecting religious freedoms and giving lawmakers power to remove the president. Yet the draft also allows Egypt's powerful military to choose its own chief and try civilians in military tribunals.

The constitutional changes come amid a heavy handed crackdown on dissent that's left the country largely divided between supporters and opponents of the military that toppled Mohammed Morsi, the country's first freely elected president.

"This is the path of rescue from the current condition," said Amr Moussa, the elder Egyptian statesman leading the constitutional panel. "It is the transition from disturbances to stability and from economic stagnation to development."

The military suspended the Islamist-drafted, voter-approved 2012 constitution in the July 3 coup that ousted Morsi. The constitutional panel, dominated by secularists, has been working on changes as part of a military-backed timeline that calls for voters to approve it. It plans for parliamentary and presidential elections to be held early next year.

On Saturday, 48 panel members began voting on the changes in a session aired live on state television. Most articles passed unanimously. One issue the panel faced was how the principles of Islamic law, or Shariah, already called the main source of law in Egypt, should be defined. Some feared a definition would allow for a heavier implementation of Shariah and the creation of a religious state.

The panel voted to refer to Supreme Constitutional Court's limited definition of Shariah's principles. That "didn't appease the Islamist representative," said panel member Kamal el-Helbawi, an independent who once belonged to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

The panel voted for an amendment banning slavery, human trafficking and "the sex trade." The panel's sole Islamist party representative opposed the amendment, as some say the article restricts early marriages.

The panel also voted in favor of abolishing the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, as well as an amendment defining Egypt as a "civilian" government in Arabic. That term angers Islamists, who say it means secular.

Among articles the panel will vote on Sunday is one allowing lawmakers to vote out an elected president and call for early elections if they have a two-thirds majority. Another allows parliament to prosecute the president for "violating the rules of the constitution."

A proposed change also prohibits the establishment of political parties on religious grounds, meaning the Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice party and Al-Nour, the political arm of Salafi Call movement, could be banned.

Other controversial changes up for a vote include one giving the military the right to choose its own army chief, who serves as the defense minister, over a transitional period of eight years. Another gives the military the right to try civilians in front of military tribunals for a series of crimes. The tribunals are known for swift and harsh verdicts that cannot be appealed.

Heba Morayef, the director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt, said the proposed changes also banned soldiers from being tried in civilian courts, giving them "de facto immunity." She said military prosecutors and courts likely won't have the independence to prosecute their own over human rights abuses.

"The 2012 constitution gave the military more privileges than they ever had before, and today there is a further expansion of military privileges," Morayef said. Once approved, the panel will hand the draft constitution to interim President Adly Mansour. Mansour has a month to call for a public vote on it.

The military-backed government hopes to pass the constitution with more support than Morsi's constitution garnered. Only a third of voters cast ballots in 2012 and it passed by 63.8 percent. Billboards calling on voters to support the draft constitution already have been put up around the capital, Cairo, though some already have reservations about it.

"The constitution is better than the previous one, but it is not the best in general," said leading civil rights lawyer Nasser Amin, an alternate member of the panel. "Polarization and divisions had its impact on the constitution."

For many Egyptians, the constitution is the first step toward normalcy and stability after nearly three years of tumultuous political change that has dealt a heavy blow to the economy and plunged the parts of the country into lawlessness.

Meanwhile Saturday, a few kilometers (miles) from where the panel met, brief clashes broke out between riot police and protesters. The clash grew out of anger over the arrest of 24 activists Tuesday who held a demonstration in defiance of a new law heavily restricting protests.

The new law allows security agencies to bar protests not previously reported to authorities, while also setting prison terms and high fines for violators. It appears aimed at ending the near-daily protests by Islamists supporting Morsi and others opposing the military-backed interim government. The law has angered secularists as well.

On Saturday, Deputy Prime Minister Ziad Bahaa-Eldin called on authorities to review the law to show that the state was ready to listen to the country's secular activists. "It is not a shame and it does not detract from the prestige of the state to reconsider a law that will only widen the gap between the state and the youth," Bahaa-Eldin said on his official Facebook page.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed "U.S. concerns" about the law Saturday in a call with Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the army chief who led the coup against Morsi. He also raised uneasiness over the arrest of political activists.

"Secretary Hagel noted that the Egyptian government's response to free expression will demonstrate the interim government's commitment to a non-violent, inclusive and sustainable democratic transition," Assistant Press Secretary Carl Woog said in a statement.

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