CAIRO (AP) — Egypt’s Islamists looked poised Saturday to gain control of another lever of power that will determine the country’s future political direction as parliament chose a panel to draw up the country’s new constitution. Liberal lawmakers denounced the process as a “farce” and walked out in protest.
The constitution will determine the balance of power between Egypt’s previously all-powerful president and parliament, and define the country’s future identity. With so much at stake, the question of who should sit on the 100-member panel has sparked a fierce debate in Egypt.
Many secular and liberal Egyptians fear that the Islamist party’s that dominate parliament will pack the panel with their supporters and ignore minority concerns. Those fears have spiked over the past week after parliament decided to allocate half of the panel’s seats to its own members, and following comments from a leading Islamist deputy who said the country’s most prominent democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, would likely not be included.
At a heated joint session of parliament Saturday to pick the panel, lawmakers from the liberal Egyptian Bloc, which holds 9 percent of the lower house’s seats, walked out of the proceedings en masse, accusing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — Egypt’s most powerful political group — of trying to dominate the selection.
Egyptian Bloc lawmaker Emad Gad described the session as a “farce,” and said the Islamist parties “have already decided on the names and voting is only meant to lend legitimacy to the process.”
“Islamists will write the constitution as they wish but I believe this will lead to many crises,” he said.
In a sign of the Brotherhood’s intentions, the group posted on its website a list of its nominees for the 50 seats to be allocated to lawmakers. It contained 36 Islamists and 14 lawmakers from other parties. With the Brotherhood holding nearly half the seats in parliament, the movement will likely be able to push its choices through.
Egypt’s ruling military council last year issued an interim constitution that gives elected members of the parliament’s two houses the right to select those who will draft the new constitution. The old 1971 constitution was suspended after the uprising that ousted longtime ruler Hosni Mubarak.
After the panel writes the constitution, the document will be put to a vote in a national referendum. However, the ruling military council left the guidelines for the process vague enough to spark a sharp debate over who should be included.
Egypt’s Islamist groups, including both the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, make up nearly three-quarters of parliament after sweeping the vote in the first post-revolution elections that began in November.
They passed a vote last week to appoint 50 of the panel members from among lawmakers in parliament, while the rest will be drawn from broader society.
Liberals, among whom are youth groups and secular parties that led the uprising but performed poorly in elections, say that a permanent constitution should not be written solely by the victors of a single election.
They argue that the constitutional process should include a wide range of members from the country’s different ideological currents, professional syndicates and unions, women, and members of the Christian minority. They say that parliament’s decision to have its members dominate the process violates earlier Brotherhood pledges to draft the charter by “consensus” and fear it represents a capitulation to the hardline Salafis.
The new constitution is expected to curb presidential powers and give parliament more authority, a drastic change to Egypt’s political system. Although the changes are intended to prevent the abuses of power associated with Mubarak, liberals fear that empowering the legislature will also empower the Islamists who have a majority there.
Another key concern is the role of Islamic Shariah law, which is subject to a wide variety of interpretation.
The old 1971 constitution says Shariah is the “main source of legislation,” but many in the hardline Salafi bloc that makes up nearly a quarter of parliament’s members want specific mention of statutes based on strict interpretations of Shariah: mandating segregation of the sexes, banning banks from charging interest and punishing theft by cutting off thieves’ hands.
Another divisive issue is the role of the military and the future of the country’s military rulers. The ruling generals want assurances they won’t lose their political clout and that parliament will have no say over the military’s budget.
Parliamentary speaker Saad el-Katatni, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, called the process of writing a new constitution “a historic mission.”
Early this month, he promised that “there will be no exclusions for anybody,” adding that the constitution should not be written by “the majority,” but instead by “consensus and partnership.”
That pledge however has been called into question by the exclusion of ElBaradei, whom Brotherhood parliamentarian Mohammed el-Beltagi said on his Facebook page Friday would normally be included “only if he didn’t oppose the current road map” for drafting the document.
ElBaradei had criticized the parliament — the product of the first open elections after decades of dictatorship — as not fully representative, and the process of drafting the constitution as rushed. He posted in a message on Twitter that the charter “is not a fast food meal.”
With drums and chants, youth activists rallied outside parliament against Islamists and the military for what they see as sabotaging the revolution.
“No Salafis, no Brotherhood. The constitution is for all Egyptians,” they chanted.