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Why is Egypt's draft constitution so controversial? (+video)

Protesters took to the streets in Cairo and other Egyptian cities today over a draft constitution written by Islamists. Here are the points many in Egypt are talking about.

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The constitution allows the continuation of military trials for civilians. After the military junta took control of Egypt when Mubarak stepped down, it sent more than 12,000 civilians before military tribunals, where the trials sometimes lasted for just five minutes and which rights groups say are inherently unfair. While a previous draft of the new constitution had stated that the military could not send civilians before military trials, the constituent assembly deleted that clause at the request of the military. The draft voted on yesterday states that civilians may be tried before military courts for crimes that harm the military "as defined by law." The military interprets that clause very widely under the military code of justice.

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Balance of power

After the uprising against an authoritarian president, many in Egypt had argued the new constitution should shift the balance of power toward Parliament, reducing the power of the presidency. While the new constitution does not make Egypt a parliamentary system, it does give the Parliament more authority. 

The new constitution limits the president to two four-year terms. It also requires parliamentary approval when the president's prime minister forms a new government. If the Parliament votes against the government twice, it is given the authority to form a government on its own. 

"It's a complicated relationship. It's not the case that the president is elected, he appoints a prime minister who chooses a cabinet, and if the Parliament isn't happy about it it's their problem," says Mr.  Ali, of the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Parliamentary checks on presidential powers are now "very present," he says. 

The Parliament's oversight over government is also increased in the new constitution. It is given new powers for forming special investigatory committees, says Ali, while it keeps the power to force government ministers or officials to appear before parliament for questioning. 

One of the "worst" parts of the new text, according to Ali, is its continuation of the centralization of government in Egypt. The document keeps most authority with central government and does not empower local governments, or make them more accountable to the people. 

The new document delegates defining the power, mandate, and appointment of governors to legislation.

Under current legislation, governors are appointed by the central government, rather than elected. Elected governors was one demand of many of the protesters during the revolution. The constitution provides for the election of local councils, but strips them of any real power, stipulating that the central government will "answer requests for assistance" from local councils. "What that means is that the central government will be providing all essential services," says Ali. "What you're doing is you're electing people who don't have any authority. It's actually worse than not electing them at all."


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