Egypt takes second shot at coming up with a fair constitutional convention (CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR) By Kristen Chick CAIRO, EGYPT 03/29/12)
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Islamists are talking with secularists today after they resigned in
protest. To be enduring, critics say, Egypt´s constitution must be a
document based on consensus.
A process that was supposed to be one of the crowning achievements of
Egypt’s uprising – the writing of a new constitution – began
yesterday amid controversy over the heavily Islamist makeup of the
assembly chosen to craft the document.
A quarter of the 100-member constituent assembly did not attend the
first session, including about 20 mostly liberals and leftist figures
who resigned from the body in protest (the reason for the other
absences wasn´t immediately clear).
They complained that the Muslim Brotherhood’s party, along with the
ultraconservative Islamist Nour Party, rushed the assembly’s election
process to push through their own candidates, resulting in an
Islamist-dominated body they say does not adequately represent
minority groups and political ideologies.
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A member of the secular Egyptian Social Democratic Party (ESDP) said
today that negotiations are ongoing with the Muslim Brotherhood´s
Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and other members of the assembly to
replace some of the Islamist committee members with enough liberals
and leftists to have a blocking minority.
Emad Gad, who resigned from the assembly´s alternates list, said the
FJP has made no promises, but is open to the idea. Dr. Gad is hopeful
the effort will succeed. He said a total of 28 people have withdrawn
from the assembly, including those elected as alternates. Among them
was a member from Al Azhar, the highest seat of Sunni learning in
Egypt, who announced his resignation today.
Political leaders are also meeting today with the Supreme Council for
the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military body currently ruling Egypt, to
discuss the crisis.
The constitution will help determine how democratic the new Egypt
will be, in part by outlining the balance between the powers of the
presidency and Parliament. If the process continues without a
compromise by the Brotherhood, it could result in a constitution
rejected by many Egyptians, leading to instability and more military
intervention in politics in the Arab world´s most populous country, a
major recipient of US aid.
“[Egypt´s government] has talked a good game but this is its first
consequential act, and if its first consequential act is alienating
segments of society, that bodes ill,” says Michael Hanna, a fellow at
the New York-based Century Foundation. “This will have long-lasting
And by deepening the Islamist-secular rift in Egyptian politics, he
adds, that sort of outcome would damage Parliament´s ability to limit
the military´s political role. "It´s potentially a really damaging
problem," he says.
To be enduring, critics say, the constitution must be a document
based on national consensus, not on who won an election – especially
not a vote held in the tumultuous months following a revolution.
"It´s not the same as a majority in parliament passing and drafting a
law," says Mr. Hanna. "It´s supposed to represent something
broader.... something more than this particular moment."
Islamists won about 70 percent of the seats in Egypt´s first
parliamentary election since the uprising, as the 80-year-old
Brotherhood capitalized on its deep roots and organization and newer
liberal parties struggled to gain recognition.
The Brotherhood´s political arm says that FJP and Nour members of
parliament make up only 30 percent of the assembly, and FJP member
Essam El Erian says the assembly is representative of the Egyptian
population. Even with an additional 30 percent of assembly members
whom liberals point out are close to the Brotherhood or come from
Islamist backgrounds, that still represents a smaller Islamist bloc
in the assembly than in parliament.
The FJP, the most powerful party in parliament, had promised an
inclusive process based on consensus. But liberal parties say the
group pushed its candidates through without discussion or
Nour and FJP leaders deny the constituent assembly was rushed, and
say they gave plenty of time for discussion. Some observers say the
liberal walkout is a symptom of a sore loser mentality.
Six women, six Christians
The members of the body tasked with writing the constitution, which
is known as the constituent assembly, were chosen by Egypt’s newly
elected parliament this past weekend in line with a constitutional
declaration adopted by referendum a year ago that lays out a road map
for Egypt’s transitional period.
Only six women and six Christians were elected to the body – despite
the fact that Christians make up about 10 percent of Egypt’s 85
million people. And there are few experts in constitutional matters
or human rights.
Mustapha Kamal Al Sayyid, who was among those elected but resigned
from the body, says that those who were chosen to represent non-
Islamist groups “very often were people who did not carry much weight
within their own constituencies,” particularly with Christians and
women. (One of the Christians chosen is a deputy leader of the Muslim
Brotherhood’s FJP party, for example.)
Mohamed Aboulghar, the head of the secular ESDP, says members of
secular parties were taken by surprise after having been given
previous Brotherhood assurances. Now they fear the Islamist parties
want to write an “Islamic constitution.”
“Then let them write an Islamic constitution,” says. Dr. Aboulghar,
whose party pulled its members from the assembly. “We will not
participate; we will not vote on it. … Let them write it as they
Some have criticized secular parties for boycotting the body instead
of attempting to influence it. But Aboulghar says they would not have
had any influence. “It was not possible to make a difference in this
form. Writing a constitution should not be done by a majority in a
parliament that represents only a temporary period in a country.”
If the Islamists go forward alone, says Aboulghar, Egyptians will not
see the resulting constitution as legitimate and the document may not
That could give an opportunity for the Supreme Council of the Armed
Forces (SCAF), the military council ruling Egypt until power is
transferred to a civilian president, to reject the constitution and
refuse to put it to a referendum, furthering Egypt’s political
instability, says Dr. Sayyid. That assumes the constituent assembly
finishes its work before a new president is elected by June.
The fight with liberal parties comes at a difficult time for the
Brotherhood, at the height of a confrontation with the military.
Whereas some liberals were once willing to work with the Brotherhood
to limit the influence of the military, liberal parties may now be
less apt to cooperate as the Brotherhood tries to prevent the
military from playing a role in politics after the handover of power.
How the empty seats may be filled
At a press conference Tuesday, one of the constituent assembly
members who resigned called on the military to intervene and redefine
how the assembly should be chosen.
The spots vacated in protest could be filled by a list of alternates,
topped by Muslim Brotherhood and Nour members, whom the parliament
also elected this weekend.
The assembly charged ahead with business yesterday, electing as its
president Saad El Katatni, an FJP member and speaker of parliament.
In comments to media after the first meeting, Mr. Katatni said the
assembly could not be reconstituted.
But Gad says the pressure the FJP is under makes it more likely that
it will agree to a compromise. Those who resigned are pushing for at
least 30-35 liberal or leftist members on the assembly, along with an
agreement that all motions must be passed by 75 percent of the
assembly, meaning the non-Islamist members could block motions. Gad
says the two sides could come to an agreement within days; but he
wants it in writing.
"We cannot trust them. We need to reach to a written agreement
concerning each point," he says(© The Christian Science Monitor.
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