By Tamim Elyan
CAIRO (Reuters) - The authority of Egypt's head of state will be curbed by parliament, according to a partial draft of the new constitution released on Wednesday, a change that would dilute the pharaonic presidential powers that underpinned decades of one-man rule.
The new constitution is a major component of a transition from military-backed autocracy to a democratic system of government that Egyptians hoped would follow the popular uprising that swept Hosni Mubarak from power last year.
Yet its drafting has been marred by bickering between Islamists and secular-minded Egyptians over the role Islam should play in the government of the Arab world's most populous country. The debate has touched on the rights of women, religious minorities and freedom of expression.
Many important questions were left unanswered in the partial draft which the drafting assembly released on Wednesday for public debate. It did not mention the degree to which civilian institutions would have oversight over the military, for example.
"We call on Egyptian society ... all over the country to take a copy of the first draft with a pen in their hand and say this article is good, this article is bad, this article can be better, I suggest this, and so on," said Mohamed Beltagi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party who sits on the constitutional assembly.
In the old constitution, the head of state had wide powers and could rule for an unlimited number of terms. Mubarak had been in power for 30 years when he was deposed. The new document will preserve a change introduced last year that caps the number of terms any president can serve at two.
In another break with the past, the draft indicates that future prime ministers would need to win a vote of confidence in parliament - implying the head of state must pick someone acceptable to the parliamentary majority.
"If I start mentioning the authorities taken from the president, it will take a long time," Gamal Gebril, head of the committee drafting the section of the constitution covering the powers of the presidency, said during a news conference.
The drafting process has been disrupted by disputes mainly pitting secular-minded Egyptians against the Islamists who have moved firmly into public life since the uprising, winning parliamentary and presidential elections.
A WOMAN PRESIDENT?
The 100-person assembly drafting the document has been the focus of criticism from liberals, leftists and others who say it over-represents Islamists and is writing a constitution that will threaten human rights. Its work could yet be derailed by a court case alleging its make-up is illegal.
After months of bickering over the role of Islamic law, "the principles of sharia" were defined as the principle source of legislation - wording identical to the previous constitution. But a new caveat expected to set out the meaning of "the principles of sharia" was left out of the draft.
There was no mention of heavily criticized wording proposed by ultraorthodox Islamists and which would have given a role to Al-Azhar, an Islamic institution, in interpreting sharia.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch has urged amendments to the draft, which it said did not protect women and children's rights, ensure religious freedom or speak out clearly against torture.
In one amendment, the constitution appears to open the door for a woman to become president. "This is a new addition to the constitution," political analyst Gamal Abdel Gawad said.
Members of the assembly said that they had until December 12 to finish their work, meaning there is likely more debate to come. All the articles must be approved by at least 57 members.
The constitution will then be put to a popular referendum, after which Egyptians are due to head to the polls again to elect a new parliament.
(Additional reporting by Cairo bureau; Writing by Tom Perry)