Egypt, in gesture to opponents, eyes constitution changes

CAIRO Tue Apr 9, 2013 8:26am EDT

Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Kandil talks during a news conference with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde (not pictured) at the cabinet headquarters in Cairo, August 22, 2012. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih

Egypt's Prime Minister Hisham Kandil talks during a news conference with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde (not pictured) at the cabinet headquarters in Cairo, August 22, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Asmaa Waguih

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CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's Islamist-led government has asked independent legal experts to propose amendments to the new constitution, the state news agency MENA said on Tuesday, signaling that it may be heeding concerns of the liberal and leftist opposition.

Members of Egypt's main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front (NSF), walked out of the drafting of the constitution last year in protest at what they saw as its Islamist slant, and have called for changes to enshrine more freedoms and rights, notably for religious minorities and women.

Eight people have been killed and many others injured in the last four days in one of the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians since the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

MENA said Prime Minister Hisham Kandil had assigned a committee of scholars to review 10 to 15 articles of the disputed charter, which was rushed through parliament in December over opposition protests, and passed in a referendum.

Mohamed ElBaradei, a senior NSF leader, has spearheaded a campaign for amendments, and called his grouping the Constitution Party to underline the importance of the document.

MENA did not say which articles would be reconsidered, who would sit on the lawyers' committee or when it would report. A cabinet spokesman was not available for comment and Kandil was travelling in Africa on Tuesday.

The agency quoted Kandil as saying the proposed amendments would not be binding on a new parliament, expected to be elected late this year, but that he would send them to President Mohamed Mursi for a decision.

"Of course this is a gesture to attract us and we are taking it very seriously, but we need to make sure it is a serious move that would lead to something tangible," said NSF spokesman Hussein Abdel Ghani.

"That is why we are asking for transparent and detailed information, such as who will be on this panel and which articles will be discussed."

The European Union and the United States have been putting pressure on Mursi and the opposition to work for consensus and stability while Egypt tries to secure aid from the International Monetary Fund to ease an economic crisis.

ElBaradei set three conditions on Monday for the NSF to cooperate with Mursi and work for a national consensus: the appointment of a "neutral and credible" government, an independent prosecutor-general and a panel to draft a new parliamentary election law.

Essam el-Erian, deputy leader of Mursi's Muslim Brotherhood group, called on his Facebook page on Tuesday for ElBaradei to be put on trial for helping the U.S. government to launch its 2003 war on Iraq, when he was serving as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

(Reporting by Omar Fahmy and Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

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