CAIRO — Egyptian lawmakers clashed Saturday over who should have the right to draft the country's constitution, in a heated debate focusing on the influence of Islamists on the crucial document and how religiously conservative Egypt will be.
The first meeting of Egypt's newly-elected 678-member parliament was focused on how to choose the 100 people who will be responsible for writing the country's first constitution after the overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. Islamists want the parliament they control to have a dominant voice and liberals, fearful of too much Islamic influence, prefer a panel of outside experts and activists.
Once the panel is seated, it will have six months to draft the constitution and then put it to a national referendum. Lawmakers Saturday said they'll announce the guidelines for picking the panel on March 17 — essentially how many would come from the Islamist-dominated parliament. On March 24, they'll announce the panel itself.
The constitution debate centers on how much of a role conservative Islamists will have in writing the document and essentially how Islamic the country will be.
The new constitution is expected to curb presidential powers and give parliament more authority, a drastic change of Egypt's political system and a gateway for Islamization of the country as long as Islamists keep their majority in parliament.
The more conservative Salafis want the constitution to be based solely on Islamic law, also called Shariah. The Muslim Brotherhood shares many of the Salafists' fundamental beliefs but has avoided going into specifics about the new constitution so as to not alarm moderates or western allies worried about Egypt turning into a theocracy.
The political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis, both of whom fared well in the parliament elections and dominate its two chambers, argue that elected parliamentarians must form between 40 and 60 percent of the constitution panel.
The speaker of the lower house of parliament, who's affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, tried Saturday to reassure liberals and others that they would not be shut out of the decision-making process.
"There will be no exclusions for anybody," said Saad el-Katatni. He added that the constitution should not be written by "the majority," but instead by "consensus and partnership."
But opponents say the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's oldest and most powerful political organization, often speak of consensus while actually trying to amass power. Members of its political wing hold just under half of all seats in the 508-seat lower house and 106 of the Shura Council's 180 elected seats, giving them a powerful voice in the country's political process.
The Salafis finished second behind the Muslim Brotherhood's political wing. The Salafis, which have depicted themselves as "guardians of Shariah" and say women and Christians can't run for president, took a harder line.
"We should not come under pressure and waste the right of the majority by falling in the trap of giving the minority the right to write the constitution," said Salafi Nour party representative, Mustafa Khalifa. His comments were met by widespread clapping. He said only 40 members of the panel should come from outside the parliament.
Liberals lashed out. Hilaasyassi Mikhail, from the Free Egyptians party, warned the Islamists of trying to hijack the constitution.
"While democracy is the rule of the majority, it doesn't mean to bow to the will of the majority ... the minority has similar rights," said Mikhail.
Liberal and secular youth activists, who spearheaded the mass demonstrations that toppled Mubarak a year ago, fared poorly in voting for the two parliament chambers.
They have pushed for the panel to be made up of no more than 20 percent of parliament lawmakers, likely giving liberals and secularists a greater voice.
Leftist Abu el-Ezz al-Hariri of the Popular Socialist Alliance criticized the whole process and said that the constitution should have come first before elections.
"The constitution should have been the first step to democracy," he said, echoing the earlier "Constitution First" campaign by the liberal bloc last year that tried but failed to reverse the military generals' roadmap for Egypt's transitional period.
Part of the debate over the constitution is about the future political role of the military, which took power after Mubarak's fall and pledged to transfer power to an elected president by the end of June.
The Islamists have avoided getting into confrontations with the military by staying away from anti-military street protests and agreeing in principle on preserving the generals' privileges in the constitution.
The military, the country's most powerful and secretive institution, wants assurances they won't lose their political clout and that civilian lawmakers have no say over the military's budget, something rejected by liberals but supported by Islamists.