July 20, 2013

CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s interim president selected a team of legal experts Saturday to rewrite controversial portions of the Islamist-drafted constitution, as the military-backed leadership moved quickly to try to capitalize on the coup that ousted the country’s first freely elected leader.

While supporters of former President Mohammed Morsi still protest in the streets, Egypt’s new prime minister called for consensus and participation of all political groups. But Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood group officially has refused to negotiate with the new government, saying they are open for talks only after he is reinstated.

The persistent protest and clashes, however, continue to rock hope for stability in the country. Moves to amend the constitution are the latest push by the country’s new leadership to move ahead with a military-backed timetable for a return to democratic rule to Egypt. The drafting of Egypt’s constitution was one of the most divisive issues that came to characterize Morsi’s first and only year in office.

In his decree Saturday, interim President Adly Mansour appointed the 10-member committee of judges and law professors that will propose amendments to the constitution. They have 30 days to suggest amendments. A second committee, comprised of 50 public figures including politicians, unionists and religious figures, then will have 60 days to review those amendments.

After that, citizens will vote on the proposed amendments in a referendum, according to the military-backed timetable. Parliamentary elections are to follow. In an interview with Egyptian state television aired Saturday night, Prime Minister Hazem el-Beblawi said it is vital that Islamists take part in the political process, though none of Morsi’s supporters are in the new Cabinet he leads.

“We cannot write a constitution when the country is divided. The country needs consensus,” he said. “It is important we return to a country of laws.” The Brotherhood say the only legitimate constitution is the one approved in a nationwide vote and ratified by Morsi in December. The military suspended the constitution after the July 3 coup.

El-Beblawi also denied that the country’s army chief, Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, was pulling the strings from behind the scenes, saying he only spoke to the interim president regarding the formation of Cabinet.

Liberals twice walked out of committees drafting the constitution under Morsi, complaining that the Brotherhood and its allies dominated the process and stifled their suggestions. Protests over the constitution and the direction of the country turned deadly after Morsi issued temporary decrees in late November that put himself and the drafting committee above judicial oversight. The charter was then finalized in a rushed overnight session and passed in a referendum.

Unlike the previous drafting committee under Morsi, at least 20 percent of the second committee is to be represented by young Egyptians who helped galvanize street movements and women. Mohammed Abdel-Aziz, a leading figure in the Tamarod petition drive that mobilized the massive street protests that led to Morsi’s ouster, said his group has launched a new initiative to collect suggestions from Egyptians on the constitution.

“We want to reach a constitution that is representative of the people’s will,” Abdel-Aziz told The Associated Press. He declined to comment on which articles the group wants amended. Meanwhile Saturday, a security official said unidentified assailants threw a bomb at a police station in the governorate of Ismailiya, between Cairo and the volatile northern region of the Sinai Peninsula. Part of the building and a police vehicle were damaged, but no injuries were reported, the official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Clashes between protesters and security forces have erupted into violence several times since Morsi’s ouster, killing more than 60 people. The most recent incident occurred Friday night in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura when unidentified assailants opened fire at a Brotherhood-led march, sparking a melee that killed three female protesters, authorities said.

The Brotherhood said two were killed by gunshot and one died after suffocating on tear gas. Medical officials said the protesters’ bodies were examined Saturday. The prime minister and Vice President Mohammed ElBaradei condemned the incident in separate posts on Twitter.

The Brotherhood said the killings “shed light on the bloody nature of dictatorship and the police state under a military coup.” Authorities are clamping down on the group, with eight top Islamist figures are under arrest. Prosecutors issued another arrest warrant Saturday for the Brotherhood’s top figure, Mohammed Badie, and four others. The latest warrants accused them of inciting violence with police that led to the deaths of seven pro-Morsi supporters in Cairo this week.

Morsi has been held incommunicado at an undisclosed military facility since his ouster. He has not been charged with any crime. The Brotherhood’s television channel and others sympathetic to the group have been taken off the air. On Saturday, security officials said that police raided the Iranian Alalam TV station and arrested its manager. Authorities said the station did not have the proper permits to operate in Egypt. An employee at the station told BBC Arabic that they had applied for permits, but, as has happened with other stations in the past, authorities delayed issuing them licenses to operate.

Rights groups have criticized the clampdown and Morsi’s detention, as well as the deaths of dozens of protesters in recent weeks. In another sign of the interim government’s drive to move on with the transition, Jordan’s King Abdullah met with the country’s president, army chief and other top figures Saturday in the first visit by a head of state to Cairo since the coup. The king’s visit highlighted his support of the coup that ousted the Brotherhood from power.

Additionally, Egypt’s new foreign minister Nabil Fahmy said Egypt continues to support the Syrian uprising but has no intention of supporting a jihad — or holy war — in the nation. Fahmy said that “everything will be re-evaluated” regarding the country’s stance toward Syria. Morsi had severed diplomatic ties with Damascus just weeks before his ouster.

Fahmy also said Cairo is also “seriously assessing” its relations with the Syrian regime’s key regional backer Iran. Morsi moved to improve diplomatic ties with Tehran.

Associated Press writers Maamoun Youssef and Mariam Rizk contributed to this report.