CAIRO - An Egyptian panel was rushing through on Thursday approval of a new constitution at the centre of a political crisis pitting the Islamist president against his opposition, which has threatened new protests.

By late afternoon, the constituent assembly, which has been boycotted by liberals and Christians, had approved almost one-fifth of 234 articles, including a unanimous decision to retain Islamic law as the main source of legislation.

“We want a constitution we agree on,” said assembly chief Hossam al-Gheriani, adding that the panel had been “awaiting” boycotting members even as it went to the vote.

President Mohamed Mursi, meanwhile, is expected to give an address on the crisis at 1700 GMT, the official Al-Ahram newspaper reported.

The opposition, which has mobilised unprecedented rallies since Mursi assumed broad powers last week, accuses the president and allies in the constituent assembly of railroading the charter through for a quick referendum. The charter will replace the one suspended after president Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow in early 2011.

Once it has been approved by the panel, it will be sent to Mursi, who must call a referendum on it. One of the president’s advisors and panel member Essam al-Erian said this might happen within two weeks.

The opposition mostly disagreed with the rushed manner in which the assembly was operating and opposes some of of the draft charter’s provisions on rights and freedoms.

Christians objected to an article, yet to be approved, that seeks to narrow the meaning of “the principles of Islamic law” to the tenets of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence.

Heba Morayef, Human Rights Watch Egypt directors, said some of the draft article provisions freedom of expression and religion resemble a “penal code.”

“Some of the provisions are penal code provisions. You don’t list all the things that you are not allowed to do, you’re supposed to set up the rights and limitations,” she said.

Particularly worrisome was the limitation of religious freedom to followers of Abrahamic religions, Morayef said, which would exclude minorities such as Bahais that have been persecuted in Egypt.

“They have added language that is problematic to freedom of expression, you cannot ‘insult a human’, which is very broad. It can be used to censor criticism of the president,” she said.

Mursi’s decree, described by the opposition as dictatorial, stripped courts of the right to annul the controversial constituent assembly ahead of an expected court ruling on Sunday.

It shields Mursi’s decisions from review by the judiciary, which Mursi and his movement believe retains Mubarak-era appointees who are inimical to Islamists. The top Cassation Court has suspended work to protest the decree, which will expire once the constitution is ratified.

Mursi and his supporters argue that delaying the constitution, which would be followed by parliamentary elections to replace the Islamist-dominated house dissolved by a court earlier this year, would delay democratic transition.

The assembly, dominated by Islamists, had announced on Wednesday it would vote on the charter the following day, to the shock of opposition groups holding out that Mursi would try to reconcile after a massive Tuesday rally.

Mursi allowed the assembly a further two months after its mid-December deadline to finish the charter, making the quick vote even more of a surprise to the opposition.

Opposition groups said they would hold marches on Friday to Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where dozens of protesters say they will remain camped out until Mursi reverses his decree. Minor skirmishes persisted on Thursday between some protesters and police near the square.

At least three protesters have been killed in country-wide unrest since the decree.

The president insisted in a magazine interview on Wednesday that he will surrender his controversial new powers once a new constitution is in place, hoping to assuage the growing anger two years after a democratic uprising overthrew Mubarak.

“If we had a constitution, then all of what I have said or done last week will stop,” he told the US Time magazine. “I hope, when we have a constitution, what I have issued will stop immediately.”