Egyptian Islamists reacted with indignation on Thursday after a top minister said the government might lay down the basic tenets of a constitution before a new elected parliament gets a chance to debate and vote on the founding document.
Secularists and some government officials fear Islamists, freed to take part in formal politics after the February overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak, plan to grab power in elections later this year and turn Egypt into a theocracy.
The most influential Islamic political groups say they want a civil state with an Islamic reference but have no hidden agenda.
Deputy Prime Minister Ali al-Silimi said the government was drafting a document of constitutional principles that could be implemented before the elections if agreed upon by different political groups and public opinion, newspapers reported.
"A constitutional decree could be issued before the coming parliamentary elections which could be won by one party or more," Egypt's Al-Masry Al-Youm quoted Silimi as saying on Thursday.
Brotherhood political wing Freedom and Justice, which plans to contest half the seats in parliament, rejected the move, saying the transition that was already agreed -- elections, then a new constitution -- should proceed as planned.
"We see the constitution as a document made by the people and no one has the right to censor the people's will," the party's secretary-general Mohamed Saed Elkatatny told Reuters.
Tareq al-Zumur, spokesman for the more radical al-Gama'a al-Islamiya, said the idea of issuing constitutional principles before the elections was "legally wrong."
"This will mean ignoring the people's will. The authorities have to call for elections to come first," he said.
Al-Gama'a al-Islamiya was involved in the assassination of former President Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and was the country's biggest Islamist militant group in the 1990s.
It carried out a 1997 attack on tourists at an ancient temple near the Nile Valley city of Luxor in which 58 people died. But the party has renounced violence and says it supports a civil constitution with an Islamic reference.
Disputes over the founding principles of post-Mubarak Egypt -- especially the role of the army and religion -- underscore the challenge faced by Egypt's ruling generals to reconcile the aspirations of opposing, and often hostile, political groups.
Earlier this week a similar debate about the new constitution led to strains in an electoral pact between the Brotherhood and Egypt's liberal Wafd party.
Having constitutional principles approved by the different political forces ahead of the elections "is the right answer to the fears of many in case we end up with a parliament controlled by Islamists," said political scientist Mustapha al-Sayyid.
(Reporting by Yasmine Saleh, editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Paul Taylor)