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CAIRO--One of Egypt's most prominent ultraconservative Muslim clerics had high praise for the country's draft constitution. Speaking to fellow clerics, he said this was the charter they had long wanted, ensuring that laws and rights would be strictly subordinated to Islamic law.
"This constitution has more complete restraints on rights than ever existed before in any Egyptian constitution," Sheik Yasser Borhami assured the clerics. "This will not be a democracy that can allow what God forbids or forbid what God allows."
The draft constitution that is now at the center of worsening political turmoil would empower Islamists to carry out the most widespread and strictest implementation of Islamic law that modern Egypt has seen. That authority rests on the three articles that explicitly mention Shariah, as well as obscure legal language buried in a number of other articles that few noticed during the charter's drafting but that Islamists insisted on including.
According to both supporters and opponents of the draft, the charter not only makes Muslim clerics the arbiters for many civil rights, it also could give a constitutional basis for citizens to set up Saudi-style "religious police" to monitor morals and enforce segregation of the sexes, imposition of Islamic dress codes and even harsh punishments for adultery and theft--regardless of what laws on the books say.
The spiraling crisis is threatening to turn into an outright fight for the identity of post-revolutionary Egypt, splitting the nation between those who want an Islamic state and those who oppose it, two years after the fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
For Islamists, the constitution is the keystone for their ambitions to bring Islamic rule, a goal they say is justified by their large victory in last winter's parliamentary elections. President Mohammed Morsi, who hails from the Muslim Brotherhood, has rejected opposition demands that he cancel a Dec. 15 nationwide referendum on the draft.
"Egypt is Islamic, it will not be secular, it will not be liberal," thousands of Morsi supporters chanted Friday after the funeral of two men killed in clashes earlier this week. Witnesses say the violence began when Islamists attacked an anti-Morsi protest camp outside the presidential palace.
"Bottom line, this is a struggle between ideologies--the Islamic ideology moving with a clear plan with public support, and the secularists," said pro-Morsi demonstrator Khaled Omar, his head bandaged from Wednesday's fighting. "We are defending Islam, which people want."
The opposition is determined to stop the draft, and thousands marched for a third straight day Friday on the palace.
The Brotherhood is "unleashing its gang chanting jihadi slogans, as if they are in a holy war against the infidels," said businessman Magdi Ashri, who opposes Morsi. "Their agenda is to monopolize power in Egypt, whatever it takes."
Egypt's Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly debated the draft for months, until most liberal members--and all the Christian ones--walked out to protest what they called hard-liners' railroading of the process.