Egyptian parliament names constitution panel

By Maggie Michael

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, March 24 2012 9:35 a.m. MDT

Egypt's Parliament Speaker Saad el-Katatni, left, confers with his colleagues Amr Shobky, center, Amr Hamzawy, second right and Margret Azer during a session to select a constitutional panel in Cairo, Egypt, Saturday, March 24, 2012. Egyptian parliamentarians on Saturday cast ballots to select a 100-member panel that will draft the country's new constitution, amid deep polarization between liberals and Islamists over the process.

Ahmed Gomaa, Associated Press

CAIRO — Islamists that dominate Egypt's new parliament looked Saturday to solidify their power over the country's political direction as lawmakers chose a 100-member panel to draw up the country's new constitution.

The selection process has sparked a fierce debate in Egypt. With so much at stake, a bloc of secular and liberal lawmakers boycotted Saturday's voting by both houses of parliament, accusing the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood — the country's most powerful political force — of trying to pack the panel with its supporters and ignoring minority concerns.

Fears among liberals have spiked over the past week after parliament decided to allocate half of the 100 seats on the panel to its own members, and when a leading Islamist deputy said that the country's most prominent democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, would likely not be included.

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 37 Islamists and 13 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 between liberals and Islamists on 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 Islamic political forces want an all-out dominance on the constitutional writing," wrote Emad Gad, a liberal lawmaker, in the private-owned Al-Tahrir daily. He added that even before the panel has been seated, Islamists have prepared their own drafts of the constitution.

The Brotherhood has long assured liberals that it doesn't intend to rule Egypt alone, but many secular Egyptians accuse the Islamist group of maneuvering to do just that.

Before parliamentary elections, the Muslim Brotherhood said it would only field candidates for 30 percent of the seats in parliament, only to eventually contest more than 80 percent. The group also previously said it would not field a presidential candidate from within its ranks or the broader Islamist fold, but the group recently backtracked and says it is now considering putting forward a candidate for the presidential ballot.

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