By Shaimaa Fayed and Edmund Blair
CAIRO, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Director Khaled Youssef took on the establishment with his films before Hosni Mubarak's police state was brought down and now believes the arts can challenge the Islamists ruling Egypt after the revolution.
"Art will contribute greatly, just as it did in overthrowing Mubarak's regime," said Youssef, who has joined the opposition campaign against a constitution drafted by an Islamist assembly that is on the verge of becoming the basis for Egypt's laws.
The constitution, fast-tracked to a referendum by President Mohamed Mursi, has exposed the deep rifts between Egypt's Islamists and a rival camp of leftists, liberals, Christians and more moderate Muslims, at odds about how to shape the new nation.
The basic law won 57 percent of the vote in the first round and is now expected to pass through a second round on Saturday. The opposition camp says the document's failure to win a ringing endorsement shows just how divisive it is.
"No constitution is forced on half of a nation oppressively and forcefully," said Youssef, 48, a leftist member of the opposition Popular Current party.
Islamists, who have won every vote since Mubarak was ousted in February 2011, although by shrinking margins, say the constitution must be passed to complete the transition to democracy and Egypt's laws and codes should be based on Islamic principles to reflect the wishes of a Muslim-majority nation.
For liberal-minded Muslims like Youssef, whose camp has struggled to organise against the disciplined ranks of Islamists, that vision means sidelining the rights of Christians, who make up a tenth of Egypt's 83 million people, women and others who see Egypt as a diverse nation and a cultural leader in the Arab world.
"This constitution is heading to the dustbin of history," said the director whose films sought to highlight the nation's slide into poverty under Mubarak and have annoyed Islamists with plots that tackle taboo issues such as sex.
FIGHT ON ITS HANDS
Rights groups say the constitution does not include enough explicit protection for women's rights and point to vague language, such as references to "national" morals. Liberals fear this means religious conservatives will use it to impose social restrictions that could hurt women, minorities and the arts.
The document has a distinctly Islamist flavour. While the source of legislation remains "the principles" of Islamic sharia as in the old text, a new provision adds further details on what that would mean. Another article says Al-Azhar mosque and university, a seat of Sunni Muslim learning, must be consulted on "matters related to the Islamic sharia".
"Under the shadow of the Brotherhood and extremist groups the future of all Egyptians will no doubt be dark," said Fatma Naoot, 48, a poet and columnist, who often speaks out on women's issues and defends the arts against censorship.
Naoot, a liberal Muslim, refers to some of the radical preachers who are now common faces on television as "strangers" to Egyptians, adding: "But I am confident that Egypt will return to us soon."
Defeating the constitution in the referendum now looks beyond the opposition. Their next battle will be a parliamentary election likely in early 2013. The last parliament, dissolved in June, was dominated by Islamists.
Islamists bore the brunt of Mubarak's repressive police state, but liberals and leftists fared little better. Some groups were co-opted, others were harried and their anti-Mubarak protests were routinely crushed by baton-wielding police.
The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, can draw on a social support and charity network it built up over eight decades, even as its members were jailed. The opposition have not yet matched that, even if groups like the Popular Current and Mohamed ElBaradei's Constitution Party are expanding their reach.
"The Brotherhood faction and the extremist religious groups, are unfortunately only ruled by a sense of revenge for the 80 years (they spent) visualizing and longing for power," said Naoot.
Like Youssef, she has become a regular guest on fiercely argumentative talk shows, lining up against Islamists. The shows have become nightly battle grounds on Egypt's future.
"A woman in the eyes of those seated on the chair of power now is merely a 'thing' that has no decision or will," she said, pointing to Egypt's ancient history with its women leaders such as Cleopatra and female goddesses, and mentioning that in more modern times one of the earliest female aviators was Egyptian.
"Egypt will move on the right path if people stay strong and united in the face of Brotherhood fascism," she said, using the kind of fierce language that has become more common as the political battle lines have hardened.
Both sides employed fiery terms. In a call for a protest in Alexandria this Friday in response to clashes between Islamists and their opponents last week, a Brotherhood official referred to the "ugly face of secularism with its animosity to Islam."
Islamists also say their actions are not seeking to smother the views of others but claim they reflect majority opinion, in a nation where most women are veiled, although that dress code does not indicate political allegiance.
Divisions, they say, are the normal way of politics.
"The whole world is divided and that does not mean the world will enter into global wars," Brotherhood official Essam el-Erian told Reuters after the first-round vote. "Division in any vote doesn't mean the start of a civil war or chaos."
But the Brotherhood's opponents say a constitution should not drive a wedge through a nation because it is meant to reflect the principles of governance not partisan politics.
They also say support for Mursi and his group may be ebbing away. A referendum on a temporary constitution, a parliamentary vote and a presidential election in the past two years suggest at least some slippage in support for Islamists.
The National Salvation Front, an opposition coalition formed after Mursi expanded his powers on Nov. 22 and then pushed through the constitution, has drawn tens of thousands on to the streets to oppose the referendum, although has not managed it with the regularity of Islamists.
Hassan Nafaa, a liberal activist and political science professor, was among voters who plumped for Mursi in the presidential run-off race in June when the alternative was Ahmed Shafik, an ex-military man and former prime minister under Mubarak. Mursi won with 52 percent of the vote.
But Nafaa said Mursi had turned to his own group and ignored other Egyptians, even members of the opposition who had backed him in his election. He said the president was simply dismissing the opposition as "liberals (who) do not have any real weight among the population".