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

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    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.
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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.

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.

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“[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

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 Egyptian Social Democratic Party, 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 like.”

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 survive long.

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.

Another way to resolve the crisis would be a compromise by the Brotherhood to bring back those who resigned. One FJP member of parliament said in a statement released on Facebook last night that the party is ready to replace some members of the assembly.

But today, the assembly charged ahead with business, electing as its president Saad El Katatny, an FJP member and speaker of the parliament. Mr. Katatny formed a committee to contact those who were not present and negotiate their return. Dr. Erian of FJP said the committee would immediately launch dialogue with those who resigned, and he hoped they would return. 

But Sayyid said that the FJP would have to agree to change the composition of the assembly to win their return. With so many perceived problems, he says, “I guess it will be very difficult to remedy all of this.” 

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