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Egypt takes second shot at coming up with a fair constitutional convention

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.

By Correspondent / March 29, 2012

Egyptian protesters chant anti regime slogans and carry banners with Arabic that read, "a constitution for all Egyptians must be written by the rebels, civilian constitution is our basic right," during a rally denouncing Islamists domination of the 100-member panel that will write the country's post-Mubarak constitution, in Cairo, Egypt Wednesday, March 28.

Nasser Nasser/AP

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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 yesterday 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, 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.

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 He said a total of 28 people have withdrawn from the assembly, including those elected as alternates.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 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 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.

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