CAIRO — A hardline Islamist leader said the army had driven Egypt to the "edge of a precipice" as a new constitution likely to ban Islamic political parties was set to be approved on Sunday by the panel that drafted it.
The 50-member constituent assembly was due to finish voting on a draft that reflects how the balance of power has shifted in Egypt since secular-minded generals deposed Islamist President Mohammed Morsi in July after mass protests against him.
Work on the draft constitution came at the same time Egyptian police used heavy tear gas to clear hundreds of supporters of from Cairo's famed Tahrir Square shortly after they took over the plaza.
It was the first time in more than a year that Islamists entered the central square in significant numbers. The location has been the near exclusive domain of liberal and secular protesters since shortly after now-deposed Mohammed Morsi took office in June 2012.
Police acted swiftly and appeared to surprise protesters, who quickly dispersed and took refuge in side streets. After an initial salvo of some two dozen tear gas canisters, armored police vans rushed to the square with sirens wailing. Later, six armored personnel carriers belonging to the army arrived
A major milestone in Egypt's political roadmap, the constitution must be approved in a referendum before new elections which Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, driven underground by aggressive security measures, is unlikely to contest.
One of Morsi's hardline allies, Gamaa Islamiya leader Assem Abdel Maged, who is wanted on charges of inciting the killing of protesters, predicted things would get worse in Egypt.
"The army must review its position quickly because the country is on the edge of a precipice," Abdel Maged told Al Jazeera television in Qatar late on Saturday.
He fled to Doha after Morsi fell on July 3 and is the first-high profile Islamist in exile to speak publicly since then.
Abdel Maged, who once shared a prison cell with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri, was jailed for 25 years until 2006 for his role in the 1981 assassination of President Anwar Sadat and other crimes. After his Al Jazeera interview, Egypt's public prosecutor formally asked Interpol to arrest Abdel Maged.
Egyptian security officials said Abdel Maged had fled to Qatar by sea or via the border with Libya. Qatar is one of the few Arab states that was sympathetic to the Islamists during Morsi's year in power, supplying Egypt with billions of dollars in aid. Now relations between Qatar and Egypt are strained.
"CONSTITUTION OF MINORITIES"
Speaking at a rally before Morsi was ousted, Abdel Maged said that, if this were to happen, Islamists would push for a pure Islamic state in Egypt. Abdel Maged, whose group fought an insurgency that was crushed by former President Hosni Mubarak in the 1990s, is still reviled as a terrorist by his opponents.
Abdel Maged accused the army of siding with "minorities" — a reference to Christians and secular-minded Egyptians. He said protests would "break this coup," adding: "This constitution is the constitution of minorities."
Egypt has been torn by the worst internal strife in its modern history in the last five months. Security forces killed hundreds of Morsi supporters in the weeks after his ouster, while attacks on the security forces have become commonplace.
Some 200 policemen and soldiers have been killed in what the military-backed government casts as a war on terrorism. The Brotherhood says it is peacefully resisting the army takeover.
Sunday's Tahrir Square protest was a reminder of the tension.
"With our blood and souls we sacrifice for you, Islam," the protesters chanted. "The people want to topple the regime."
Arwa Tarek, an 18-year old student who said she opposed Morsi and those now in power, said: "I started protesting as I felt people are no longer free or able to express their views or protest peacefully. Now I feel Mubarak's days were better."
Some passersby shouted abuse at the protesters, others waved in support. Police fired teargas to disperse the crowd.
Criticism of the army-installed government has spread since it passed a law severely restricting the right to protest last week, drawing criticism from the United States, which has withheld some military aid pending progress towards democracy.
CONCERN FOR POLITICAL FREEDOMS
On Sunday, the prosecutor's office extended for 15 days the detention of a prominent online dissident, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who is being held for calling a protest without permission.
Another prominent activist held on the same charge was released on Sunday a day after he turned himself in. Ahmed Maher, founder of the April 6 movement, is still being investigated for breaking the new law, judicial sources said.
The protest law has reinforced activists' concerns about the future of political freedoms in Egypt, where the anti-Mubarak fostered hopes that democracy could take root on the Nile.
But the turbulent three years since have made many Egyptians yearn for stability that will give the battered economy a chance to recover.
The new political roadmap sees parliamentary and presidential elections after the constitution is approved. General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who led the overthrow of Morsi, is widely seen as the frontrunner for the job of president.
The draft constitution widens the already broad privileges enjoyed by the army by requiring the approval of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for the choice of a defense minister to serve for eight years from when the document is ratified.
It does not indicate how the minister of defense could be sacked or who has the authority to fire him.
It also bans political parties formed on a religious basis — language that could result in an outright ban on Islamist parties including the Salafi Nour Party, which has one representative in the constituent assembly.
The Brotherhood has already been driven underground.
The new constitution will replace one drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly and signed into law by Morsi last year after it was approved in a referendum. The new text strips out Islamist-inspired additions introduced last year.
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