Changes suggested by Egypt's army-backed rulers would scrap Islamic additions to a constitution forced through under deposed President Mohamed Mursi and revive a voting system dating back to his predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
Islamists and liberals have voiced alarm about the proposals made by a constitutional committee set up by the generals who removed the Muslim Brotherhood's Mursi on July 3 amid widespread protests against Egypt's first freely elected leader.
The army has suspended the constitution adopted under Mursi late last year. It had been endorsed by a referendum after he grabbed extraordinary powers to ensure its passage, igniting some of the bloodiest street protests of his turbulent year in power.
Now an army-installed government is revising a document faulted for embedding Islamic influence in lawmaking and for short-changing human rights, especially of women and minorities, including Christians who form some 10 percent of the population.
The changes drafted by a 10-member committee – and leaked to the media on Wednesday, the same day a court ordered Mubarak freed from jail – are part of an army roadmap back to democracy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed the roadmap and the constitutional process in a call with interim Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy on Friday, state news agency MENA reported.
The United States has voiced concern about the army's bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other violence in which more than 1,000 people, about a tenth of them soldiers and police, have been killed since Mursi fell.
The constitutional amendments drafted by the committee are due to go to a diverse 50-strong assembly to be appointed by the interim government, but they are already proving contentious.
Curiously, given that popular protests helped sweep away Egypt's last two leaders, one new article would outlaw this and would give parliament the sole right to dismiss a president.
"What is the point of having an article like that?" asked rights activist Gamal Eid. "The whole world will laugh at us."
RETURN TO OLD VOTING SYSTEM
The committee is likely to propose retaining an article that exempts Egypt's powerful military from financial or political auditing, insiders on the body said. Mursi, anxious not to alienate the defense establishment, had also left this alone.
One of the most significant suggested changes would return Egypt to voting for individual candidates, rather than reserving some seats for party lists, in parliamentary elections.
Under the current system, in which two-thirds of seats go to party lists and one-third to individuals, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties won about 80 percent of seats in the first parliamentary election after Mubarak's overthrow in 2011.
"This change seems to target Islamists and it will be wrong and undemocratic," Eid said. "We had complaints … about the Brotherhood and Islamists, but that does not mean ruling them out of politics as this will only lead to more violence."
Khaled Dawoud, a member of the liberal Dostour party, described the proposal as a return to the Mubarak era, when votes were routinely rigged to enable the president's National Democratic Party (NDP) to maintain its dominance of parliament.
The system allowed individuals, mostly aligned with the NDP, to run as "independents" using local patronage networks to get into parliament. Brotherhood candidates also ran candidates as independents to keep a limited presence in the assembly.
Once Mubarak was gone, the Islamist movement emerged from the shadows and used its organizational muscle to win five successive victories at the polls, gaining seats in parliament both for those on party lists and those running as individuals.
Dawoud said he was worried by plans to retain articles under which journalists risk jail for "insulting the president" and newspapers can be closed for press crimes – penalties enforced under Mursi, as well as during Mubarak's 30-year rule.
"I want new freedoms, more freedoms and not to end up with something similar to the 1971 constitution or one worse than Mursi's 2012 constitution," he said.
Islamists are also up in arms, for different reasons, saying the changes amount to an assault on Egypt's "Islamic identity".
According to MENA, the committee has proposed scrapping articles that accorded Islam more weight in lawmaking, gave the Sunni Muslim religious authority al-Azhar a role in vetting legislation, committed the state to upholding "morals and public order" and banned insults to "prophets and religions".
To the dismay of liberals and Christians, the constitution adopted under Mursi had strengthened a provision in its 1971 predecessor that made Islamic sharia the source of legislation.
However, the provision, due to revert to its original form in the proposed changes, was only patchily applied from 1971.
"We will protest in all legal ways available against any change to the state's Islamic identity," said Ahmed Habashi, a leader in the ultra-orthodox Islamist Nour Party in the Delta town of Mahalla. If that effort failed, he said, "we will call for protests".
Before the new constitution is ratified, it must be approved by a referendum and signed by interim President Adly Mansour.
Brotherhood leaders are mostly in jail or on the run and could not be reached for comment on the proposed changes.
Younes Makhyoun, head of the Nour Party, which initially backed the army's removal of Mursi, has warned against any arbitrary campaign targeting Islamists after the crackdown on the Brotherhood, and has urged the government to protect freedoms won by the anti-Mubarak revolt.
The legal committee, which proposed cancelling 32 of the constitution's 236 articles and amending 109, suggested abolishing the toothless upper house of parliament.
According to the military's roadmap, the new constitution should be adopted in about four months, with parliamentary and presidential elections to follow.