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EGYPT: Liberals approve cleric's suggestion for new constitution

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A document drafted by the leading cleric at Al Azhar institution, the highest seat of learning in the Sunni Muslim world, to guide the writing of a new constitution for a "modern democratic state" has been widely endorsed by Egypt's liberal and secular politicians.

The consensus was announced during a meeting that was held under the auspices of Azhar’s top cleric Ahmed el Tayeb on Wednesday and attended by nine potential presidential candidates, representatives of 22 political parties and a number of intellectuals and religious leaders.

"Those who attended the meeting at Al Azhar, agreed that Azhar’s document is a general guiding frame for the constitutional committee,” said presidential candidate Mohamed ElBaradei. Presidential aspirant Ayman Nour described the document as seeking to unite "political forces over the values and principles of a modern democratic and constitutional state."

Initially brought to light by Tayeb in June, the document consists of 11 principles, proposing that Egypt has an Islamic identity but is committed to a "civil and democratic state governed by law and the constitution." The principles include articles calling for respect of freedom of opinion, faith and for human rights.

Azhar’s document comes in the middle of a fierce split between Islamists and liberals over the introduction of supra-constitutional principles that would be binding on the new parliament in its writing of a constitution after November elections. Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Justice and Freedom party, are expected to win a sizable percent of Parliament, raising fears among liberals that without guiding principles the constitution would lean heavily toward a religious state.

Tayeb said that the Azhar's draft, which is more moderate that many Islamists would support, is a code of honor that all parties should commit to voluntarily: "Some people view the [draft] as an attempt to undermine parliament’s freedom in writing the new constitution," said Tayeb. "But the need for us to overcome our differences and reach common ground on this constitution can’t be more urgent."

The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice representative, Mohamed Morsi, said that no one disagreed over the content or the meanings of the Azhar document. But a more extreme sect of Islamists, Salafis, have previously rejected the idea of any constitutional suggestions or recommendations before electing the new parliament.

An Azhar spokesman has said that the Ministries’ Cabinet and the ruling Supreme Council of Armed Forces, which previously expressed willingness to adopt constitutional principles if agreed on by all national powers, have received drafts of the document.

--Amro Hassan in Cairo

Photo: Al Azhar's grand cleric Ahmed el Tayeb. Credit: AP

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