CAIRO (AP) — The panel tasked with amending Egypt's constitution following the army's ouster of President Mohammed Morsi began its work Sunday as the military-backed interim leadership forged ahead with its fast-track transition plan aimed at bringing the country back to democratic rule.
While appealing for consensus and reconciliation, Egypt's new government has pushed the transition in the face of opposition from Morsi's supporters who denounce the military coup that overthrew the Islamist leader and reject the new political order that has replaced him.
Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood and his Islamist allies have vowed to stage daily rallies until he is reinstated, setting the stage for further instability and potential violence. The rallies outside military buildings are particularly sensitive: Some 54 people, mostly pro-Morsi demonstrators, were killed when soldiers opened fire two weeks ago outside the Republican Guard Club. The military says armed protesters attacked the facility, while the Brotherhood says the soldiers fired on peaceful protesters.
The killings are the bloodiest episode since the military overthrew Morsi, although there have been smaller bouts of violence that have turned deadly, including on Friday when three women were killed at a Brotherhood rally in the Nile Delta city of Mansoura, sparking outrage among the group's supporters. Egypt's prosecutor general opened an investigation and top figures of the new leadership have condemned the killings.
"What happened in Mansoura will happen again in the future," said 35-year-old housewife Nagah Thabit, who was among the protesters out on the streets in support of Morsi on Sunday. "Anybody who will take to the streets in the future, the army will unleash their thugs against them."
One of the marches Sunday set off toward the U.S. Embassy, but turned back at one of the security barriers that stretch around it for several blocks.
Waving Morsi's photo, small copies of the Quran and Egyptian flags, protesters chanted, "Morsi is coming back," and "Oh Sissi wake up, today is your last day!"
"I am here to support the president's legitimacy and to send a message to the United States to tell them to stop interfering in Egyptian politics," said Zein el-Abedeen Hassib, 28. "They are the one who prepared" the coup, he said.
Members of all political factions in Egypt accuse the United States of meddling in the country's affairs, usually on behalf of their rivals.
Since overthrowing Morsi, security forces have launched a crackdown against the Brotherhood and some of their staunchest supporters. Prosecutors have issued arrest warrants for the group's leaders for allegedly instigating violence. Morsi himself has been held incommunicado since July 3.
While the protests have snarled traffic in the capital, they have had had little outward impact on the military-guided transition, including the decision to amend the constitution that was contentiously drafted and passed in a referendum during Morsi's first and only year in office.
On Sunday, the new 10-member-panel of legal experts and senior judges met for the first time to begin drawing up proposed amendments to the constitution. The panel has 30 days to do so. A second 50-member committee then will have 60 days to review those amendments before citizens vote on the new constitution in a referendum.
The drafting of Egypt's constitution was one of the most divisive issues during Morsi's rule. The charter was drafted by an Islamist-dominated assembly after liberals walked out twice, complaining that the Brotherhood and its allies were dictating the process. Protests over the constitution and the direction of the country turned deadly after Morsi issued temporary decrees in late November that put himself and the drafting committee above judicial oversight. The charter was then finalized in a rushed overnight session and passed in a referendum.
Now that Morsi is gone, many of Egypt's liberals want to remove broadly worded articles introduced by Islamists that give Shariah, or Islamic law, greater weight. But there has been pushback from the ultraconservative Nour Party that backed the military coup.
A senior Nour official, Ashraf Thabit, said the party opposes any plans to amend the so-called "identity" articles in the suspended constitution which mainly states that legislation is based on Islamic Shariah law. The constitution under longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak also stipulated that legislation is derived from Shariah.
The Salafi Nour Party has come under heavy criticism from fellow conservative Islamists for turning against Morsi, especially after authorities shut-down ultraconservative TV networks that promoted their Salafi brand of Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood's Misr 25 TV was also shut down.
The crackdown on Islamists has been met with an escalation in violence in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula as militants, long active in the area, have intensified their attacks against security forces since the ouster of Morsi.
On Sunday, three policemen were killed by sniper fire, according to a security official. The coordinated attacks killed police guarding an administrative building, a TV station and a police station in El-Arish, the main city in northern Sinai near the border with Gaza and Israel, according to the official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters.
Sunday's deaths push to 13 the number of policemen killed in Sinai since Morsi's ouster.