Updated 6:27 PM ET
CAIRO Islamists on Thursday rushed to approve a draft constitution for Egypt without the participation of liberal and Christian members, aiming to pre-empt a court ruling that could dissolve their panel and further inflaming the clash between the opposition and President Mohammed Morsi.
The draft of the charter, meant to determine a new political identity for Egypt after 60 years of rule by authoritarian leaders, has an Islamist bent that rights experts say could lead to a say by Muslim clerics in legislation and restrictions on freedom of speech, women's rights and other liberties.
The lack of inclusion was obvious in Thursday's session of the assembly that has been writing the document for months. Of the 85 members in attendance, there was not a single Christian and only four women, all Islamists. Many of the men wore beards, the hallmark of Muslim conservatives. For weeks, liberal, secular and Christian members, already a minority on the 100-member panel, have been pulling out to protest what they call the Islamists' hijacking of the process.
Voting had not been expected for another two months. But the assembly, overwhelmingly made up of Morsi's allies, abruptly moved it up in order to pass the draft before Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court rules on Sunday on whether to dissolve the panel.
Morsi is expected to call for a referendum on the draft as early as mid-December.
"I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided," Egypt's top reform leader, Nobel Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei said, speaking on private Al-Nahar TV. But he predicted the document would not last long. "It will be part of political folklore and will go to the garbage bin of history."
A new opposition bloc led by ElBaradei and other liberals said the assembly had lost its legitimacy.
"It is trying to impose a constitution monopolized by one trend and is the furthest from national consensus, produced in a farcical way," the National Salvation Front said in a statement, read by Waheed Abdel-Meguid, one of the assembly members who withdrew.
Thursday's vote escalates the already bruising confrontation sparked last week when Morsi gave himself near absolute powers by neutralizing the judiciary, the last branch of the state not in his hands. Morsi banned the courts from dissolving the constitutional assembly or the upper house of parliament and from reviewing his own decisions.
Speaking in an interview on state TV aired late Thursday, Morsi defended his edicts, saying they were a necessary "delicate surgery" needed to get Egypt through a transitional period and end instability he blamed on the lack of a constitution.
"The most important thing of this period is that we finish the constitution, so that we have a parliament under the constitution, elected properly, an independent judiciary, and a president who executes the law," Morsi said.
In a sign of the divisions, protesters camped out in Cairo's Tahrir Square who were watching the interview chanted against Morsi and raised their shoes in the air in contempt.
The president's edict sparked a powerful backlash in one of the worst bouts of turmoil since last year's ouster of autocrat Hosni Mubarak. At least 200,000 people protested in Cairo's Tahrir square earlier this week demanding he rescind the edicts.
Street clashes have already erupted between the two camps the past week- and more violence is possible. At least 200,000 people protested in Cairo's Tahrir square earlier this week against Morsi's decrees.
The opposition plans another large protest for Friday, and the Brotherhood has called a similar massive rally for the following day, though they decided to move it from Tahrir, apparently to avoid frictions. Hundreds of opposition supporters have been camping out since Friday in Tahrir and bands of youths have been daily battling police on a road leading to the U.S. Embassy. CBS News producer Alex Ortizand most of the staff has gone home, although people appeared to be fighting riot police rather than the embassy itself.
Morsi's edicts aimed at preventing the judiciary from disbanding the constitution-writing panel. He barred courts outright from doing so, then went further to bar judges from reviewing any of his own decisions. Confident the assembly was protected, he gave it until February to iron out the sharp differences over the draft.
But when the Constitutional Court defied his decree and said Wednesday that it would rule on the panel's legitimacy, the date of the vote was immediately moved up.
Islamist members of the panel defended the fast tracking. Hussein Ibrahim of the Brotherhood said the draft reflected thousands of hours of debate over the past six months, including input from liberals before they withdrew.
"People want the constitution because they want stability. Go to villages, to poorer areas, people want stability," he said.
Over the past week, about 30 members have pulled out of the assembly. As Thursday's session began, the assembly held a vote to formally remove 11 of those who withdrew and replace them with reserve members - who largely belong to the Islamist camp.
As the members voted on the draft article by article, each passed overwhelmingly. The draft largely reflects the conservative vision of the Islamists, with articles that rights activists, liberals and others fear will lead to restrictions on the rights of women and minorities and on civil liberties in general.
One article that passed underlined that the state will protect "the true nature of the Egyptian family ... and promote its morals and values," phrasing that suggests state control over the contents of such arts forms as books and films. The draft also contains no article specifically establishing equality between men and women because of disputes over the phrasing.
As in past constitutions, the new draft says that the "principles of Islamic law" will be the basis of law.
But a new article states that Egypt's most respected Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, must be consulted on any matters related to Shariah, a measure critics fear will lead to oversight of legislation by clerics.
Another one seeks to define "principles" of Islamic law by saying it reflects theological doctrines and tenets. The term "principles" had long been intentionally vague, and specifying its bases could vastly expand the reach of Shariah in influencing society.
The draft also includes bans on "insulting or defaming all prophets and messengers" or even "insulting humans" - broad language that analysts warned could be used to crack down on many forms of speech.
Praising the draft, panel president Hossam al-Ghiryani, told members: "We will teach this constitution to our sons."
"The Egyptian people are with us, listening to us," al-Ghiryani, an Islamist, said. "They must understand their constitution which they will vote on shortly and with which life will stabilize in Egypt, God willing."
The committee has been plagued by controversy from the start. It was created by the first parliament elected after Mubarak's ouster. But a first permutation of the assembly, also Islamist-dominated, was disbanded by the courts. A new one was created just before the lower house of parliament, also Brotherhood-led, was dissolved by the judiciary in June.
Morsi and his supporters say his decrees were necessary to "protect the revolution" and prevent the judiciary from holding up what they say is a transition to democracy. Morsi also decreed that courts cannot dissolve the Islamist-dominated upper house of parliament, known as the Shura Council - though the Constitution Court is to rule on whether to do so as well on Sunday. In protest, most of the nation's judges are on indefinite strike.
Dissolving the constitutional panel and replacing it with a more inclusive body is a key demand by the liberal-led opposition. It also calls for rescinding the president's decrees and the dismissal of Kandil's Cabinet.
Critics accuse the Brotherhood, from which Morsi hails, of using their election victories to monopolize the state, squeezing out other factions, and pushing through an Islamist vision.
It is not clear what would happen to the approved draft if the Constitutional Court dissolves the assembly on Sunday. But the escalation could move the dispute more out of the realm of legal questions and into the more volatile street to be decided by which side can bring the most support. At least two people have been killed and hundreds wounded in clashes since Friday.