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Egypt's liberals walk out, leaving Islamists to write a constitution

Of the 100-member assembly elected this weekend to craft Egypt's new constitution, about a fifth resigned before the group met today to begin writing.

By Correspondent / March 28, 2012

Parliamentarian Amr Hamzawy speaks at a news conference in Cairo March 27. The Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to shape Egypt's political future plunged it into confrontation on Monday with both the ruling military and liberals angry at perceived Islamist attempts to dominate the country.

Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters

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Cairo

A process that was supposed to be one of the crowning achievements of Egypt’s uprising – the writing of a new constitution – began today amid controversy over the heavily Islamist makeup of the assembly chosen to craft the document.

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A quarter of the 100-member constituent assembly did not attend the first session today, 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 assembly they say does not adequately represent minority groups and political ideologies.

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 impact."

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, the Freedom and Justice Party, 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 deliberation.

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

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