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Egypt parliament names constitution panel

Written on March 25, 2012

Egyptian parliamentarians on Saturday are casting 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.

Secularists and liberals fear that parliament’s Islamist majority will pack the panel with their supporters and ignore minority concerns.

These fears have spiked over the last week after parliament decided to allocate 50 percent of the seats in 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.

Egypt’s ruling council issued last year an interim constitution that gives elected members of the parliament’s two houses the right to select those who will draft the new constitution that will define Egypt’s future identity. The old 1971 constitution was suspended after the uprising that toppled longtime president Hosni Mubarak.

After the panel writes the constitution, it 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 hot debate between liberals and Islamists on who should be included.

Egypt’s Islamist groups, including both the Muslim Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, between them 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 inside the parliament, while the rest come from outside.

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 in a single election.

They argue that the constitutional process should include a wide range of members from the country’s different ideological trends, 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 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 payday loans.

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.

Anti-military youth activists fear the Islamists will give the military what they want, in exchange for the generals allowing them carte blanche in the constitution writing.

“We are before a historic mission,” said parliamentary speaker Saad el-Katatni, a member of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. “There will be no exclusions for anybody,” he said, 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 Tweet that the charter “is not a fast food meal.”

Parliamentarians also dropped an earlier proposal to give a quota of 25 seats to representatives of prominent Egyptian institutions, which prompted a young liberal-leaning lawmaker Mustafa al-Nagar to boycott the voting process.

He posted on his Twitter account that he would boycot the selection of the constitutional panel because it is “an exclusion to all Egyptians.”

Liberal judges and activists have filed legal challenges to the 50/50 panel makeup.

With drums and chants, youth activists rallied outside parliament against Islamists and military for what they see as sabotaging the revolution.

“No Salafis, no Brotherhood. The constitution is for all Egyptians,” they chanted. “We said the military hijacked the revolution … They (Islamists) said no, the military are sweet like sugar.”

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