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Azza el-Gharf (center) speaks with other members of the Egyptian assembly during the vote on a new constitution.
CAIRO--Islamists on Thursday rushed to approve a draft constitution for Egypt without the participation of liberal and Christian members, aiming to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel and further inflaming the clash between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.
The move advances a charter with an Islamist bent that rights experts say could give Muslim clerics oversight over legislation and bring restrictions on freedom of speech, women's rights and other liberties.
The assembly that has been working on the constitution for months raced to pass it in a single marathon session that continued past midnight, with members voting article-by-article on the more than 230-article draft. The lack of inclusion was on display in the nationally televised gathering--of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives.
For weeks, liberal, secular and Christian members, already a minority on the 100-member panel, have been withdrawing to protest what they call the Islamists' hijacking of the process.
The sudden rush to finish came as the latest twist in a week long crisis pitting Morsi and his Islamist supporters against a mostly secular and liberal opposition and the powerful judiciary. Voting had not been expected for another two months. But the assembly abruptly moved it up in order to pass the draft before Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court rules on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.
To come into effect, the draft must be passed in a nationwide referendum, which Morsi said Thursday will be held "very soon."
"I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided," Egypt's top reform leader, Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei said, speaking on private Al-Nahar TV. But he predicted the document would not last long. "It will be part of political folklore and will go to the garbage bin of history."
A new opposition bloc led by ElBaradei and other liberals said the assembly had lost its legitimacy.
"It is trying to impose a constitution monopolized by one trend and is the furthest from national consensus, produced in a farcical way," the National Salvation Front said in a statement, read by Waheed Abdel-Meguid, one of the assembly members who withdrew.
Thursday's vote escalates the already bruising confrontation sparked last week when Morsi gave himself near absolute powers by neutralizing the judiciary, the last branch of the state not in his hands. Morsi banned the courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly or the upper house of parliament and from reviewing his own decisions.
Speaking in an interview on state TV aired late Thursday, Morsi defended his edicts, saying they were a necessary "delicate surgery" needed to get Egypt through a transitional period and end instability he blamed on the lack of a constitution.
"The most important thing of this period is that we finish the constitution, so that we have a parliament under the constitution, elected properly, an independent judiciary, and a president who executes the law," Morsi said.
In a sign of the divisions, protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square who were watching the interview chanted against Morsi and raised their shoes in the air in contempt.
The president's edict sparked a powerful backlash in one of the worst bouts of turmoil since last year's ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. At least 200,000 people protested in Cairo's Tahrir square earlier this week demanding he rescind the edicts.