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." They could 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 in the 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. 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.
Islamists rammed through approval of the final draft in an all-night session Nov. 30. Of the 85 members who voted, 80 percent were members of the Muslim Brotherhood or the ultraconservative movement known as Salafis, or their allies.
Some Salafis had been reluctant about the draft because they wanted more explicit commitments to Shariah. But several days before the assembly session, Borhami -- who is also an assembly member -- assured them that what they sought was there, hidden in subtler language.
He said that by defining Egypt's political system as "democracy and Shura" -- the Islamic term for "consultation" -- the draft prevents what he called an "American or European" democracy that "gives the power of legislation to people and not to God."
How much some of the Shariah provisions in the constitution come into effect depends on who would be implementing it. And attempts to use some of its provisions would probably bring court battles over what the constitution really allows. But Borhami expressed confidence the courts would be obliged by the charter to allow a widespread implementation of Shariah.
"It is like a bombshell," says Mohammed Hassanein Abdel-Al, constitutional law professor at Cairo's Ain Shams University.
Laws passed by parliament would have to adhere to specific tenets of Shariah that the four main schools of Sunni Islam agree on. That could include banning interest on loans, forbidding mixing of genders, requiring women to wear headscarves, and allowing girls to marry when they reach puberty.
"The doors are wide open to restrict individuals' freedoms," Abdel-Al said.
Another new article says clerics from Al-Azhar, Egypt's most prominent Islamic institution, are "to be consulted on any matters related to Shariah," implicitly giving them oversight in legislation.
Private citizens could be empowered to enforce Islamic morals, Abdel-Al said.
"If I'm walking with my wife and her face is not covered or she's not wearing a headscarf, a man can come up and order me to cover her. I can't protest or object because the constitution instructs him to do so," Abdel-Al said.
Youth activist Mahmoud Salem warned in his blog that "if this constitution is passed, Cairo will truly become Kandahar, with the blessing of the Egyptian president and the Muslim Brotherhood."
Kandahar is the home city of Afghanistan's Taliban movement.