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Egypt Constitution Faces Islamic Colouring

CAIRO, Apr 4 2012 (IPS) - The large proportion of Islamist-leaning members in Egypt’s Constituent Assembly elected last month has led to accusations that Islamist parties – especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) – are effectively monopolising the constitution-drafting process.

Demonstrators in Cairo protesting against an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly.  Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

Demonstrators in Cairo protesting against an Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS.

“If the Islamists carry through with plans to draw up a new constitution under the current Islamist- dominated Constituent Assembly, they may end up facing a new revolution,” Magdi Sherif, head of the centrist Guardians of the Revolution Party, tells IPS.

On Mar. 17, elected MPs from both the People’s Assembly and the Shura Council (the lower and upper houses of Egypt’s parliament) agreed regulations governing the establishment of the 100-member assembly. The move came under Article 60 of a Constitutional Declaration issued by Egypt’s ruling military council – and endorsed by popular referendum – in the wake of last year’s revolution.

At the meeting, the parliamentary majority decided that parliament itself would select assembly members, 50 of whom would be drawn from among from sitting MPs and 50 from outside parliament. The decision was rejected by most liberal and leftist representatives, who complained that such a system would provide Islamist parties – which currently dominate both houses of parliament – with unparalleled influence over the constitution-drafting process.

“The Muslim Brotherhood’s insistence on including 50 sitting MPs in the 100-member assembly suggests that it hopes to monopolise Egypt’s political life in the same autocratic manner as did (ousted president Hosni Mubarak’s now defunct) National Democratic Party,” says Sherif.

Earlier this year, elections for Egypt’s People’s Assembly yielded a landslide victory for Islamist parties, with the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP and its allies capturing more than 75 percent of the seats. Shura Council elections, which wrapped up last month, returned similar results, leaving Islamist parties – again led by the FJP – in control of some two-thirds of parliament’s upper, consultative chamber.

Amid mounting criticism from non-Islamist political actors, both houses of Egypt’s Islamist-heavy parliament convened again on Mar. 24 to select members of the Constituent Assembly. Although initial reports were conflicting, it now appears that between 60 and 70 of the assembly’s 100 members are either members of Islamist parties – mainly the FJP and the Salafist Nour Party – or closely linked with them.

The preponderance of Islamist-leaning figures in the assembly quickly triggered a wave of resignations among its non-Islamist members.

Over the next few days, almost every assembly member not affiliated with the two main Islamist parties formally withdrew from the constitution-drafting body, including representatives of the centre-left Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the liberal Free Egyptians Party, the leftist Popular Socialist Alliance, and the liberal Wafd Party. Even representatives of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University and the moderate-Islamist Wasat Party ultimately quit the assembly.

Hazem al-Beblawi, a former finance minister and one of the first to announce his withdrawal, complained that the majority of assembly members lacked the necessary qualifications for the task at hand.

“The assembly should consist of legal scholars, intellectuals and veteran politicians, but the current members lack these credentials,” al-Belbawi was quoted as saying in the local press. “It doesn’t matter that most are of an Islamist orientation, but they must have the prerequisite political and legal qualifications.”

Speaking to IPS, presidential candidate Amr Moussa, former foreign minister and Arab League chief, asserted that the methods used to select assembly members should be “reconsidered” so as to “better represent all segments of Egyptian society.”

Constituent Assembly member Mahmoud al-Khodeiri, prominent judge and head of parliament’s legislative and constitutional affairs committee, defended the assembly’s composition, asserting that members had been elected in compliance with last year’s Constitutional Declaration. “No one can say that the constitution-drafting process will reflect only one point of view, since all political orientations were represented in the assembly,” al-Khodeiri told reporters.

Recent days have seen several demonstrations in Cairo organised by non-Islamist parties and movements – including one outside Egypt’s parliament building – to protest the assembly’s large proportion of Islamist members. Some activists are now calling for a million-man demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square next week to demand the assembly’s reformulation.

Muslim Brotherhood officials downplay the significance of the resignations.

“The withdrawal of certain political forces will affect neither the assembly’s mission nor its legitimacy,” FJP Secretary-General for Cairo Mohamed al-Beltagi tells IPS. “Members have the right to withdraw, but I reject accusations that the FJP is dominating the assembly, because the party – in agreement with other parties – chose assembly members from among all political orientations.”

In statements to the press, Shura Council president and FJP member Ahmed Fahmi stressed that it was “only natural that Islamist parties, which enjoy an elected majority in parliament, would have a corresponding majority in the Constituent Assembly.”

On Mar. 28, despite the absence of a quarter of its membership, the assembly held its first meeting, at which it elected parliamentary speaker and leading FJP member Saad El-Katatni as assembly chairman. It also drew up a committee tasked with collecting proposals for constitutional articles from civil society and opening talks with resigned members in hopes of persuading them to rejoin the assembly.

In an effort to appease critics, the Brotherhood and its allies have offered to replace some current assembly members. Spokesmen for the non-Islamist minority, however, appear bent on seeing the assembly reformulated from scratch.

On Sunday (Apr. 1), Sameh Ashour, head of the ruling military council’s Advisory Council and one of the Constituent Assembly’s former members, called for the current assembly’s dissolution. He went on to assert that Article 60 of last year’s Constitutional Declaration, which gives parliamentarians the authority to elect assembly members, should be “modified”.

With the next Constituent Assembly meeting slated for Wednesday (Apr. 4), many express doubt that the decimated congregation will be up to the task at hand – namely, the drafting of a new national charter. According to the timeline laid down by the ruling military council, a new constitution should be hammered out within six months.

“The Brotherhood is making a historical mistake with its insistence on dominating the assembly,” liberal MP and former assembly member Wahid Abdel Maguid, who is also an expert in political affairs at the Cairo-based Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, said in a recent statement. “With only 75 percent of its membership still intact, the success or failure of this assembly will quickly become apparent.”

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