Egyptian Islamists press for Shariah law

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CAIRO -- More than 10,000 ultraconservative Muslims demonstrated yesterday in downtown Cairo to demand that Egypt's new constitution be based on the rulings of Islamic law, or Shariah, in the latest tussle over the role of religion in the country's future.

The writing of the constitution has been fraught with controversy since last year's political uprising that toppled longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak and ushered in the rise of formerly repressed Islamists to power. But Islamists themselves are at odds over the interpretation of Shariah and its place in the document.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square demanded that the panel tasked with writing the constitution override liberal and secular objections and include language that could see religious scholars influencing legislation. The panel is led by the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerful Islamist group from which the country's new President Mohammed Morsi hails.

"Shariah is our constitution," and, "The people demand the application of God's law," protesters chanted.

The controversy is centered on the wording of the constitution's second amendment. In the former constitution, the wording stated that the "principles of Islamic Shariah" are the basis of legislation. This wording is favored by liberals because they say it refers to the broad ideas of Islam.

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Ultraconservatives want the wording changed to state that the basis of law will be "the rulings of Shariah," implying Egypt's laws may be left to the interpretation of religious scholars.

The current 100-member assembly has just a handful of women, some of them from the Brotherhood, and eight Christians. It is the second constitutional assembly to be formed, with the first body dissolved by court order earlier this year after liberals and seculars walked out over complaints that Islamists were trying to dominate the process.

Ongoing controversy over the wording of the charter has thrown into question when the draft will be complete. Panel members say they plan to put the charter to a nationwide referendum before the end of the year.

However, liberals on the panel are again threatening to walk out.

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