Egyptian court ruling raises stakes in presidential race

The court suspended the assembly chosen to write Egypt's new constitution, delaying the process until after elections. That means the new president will initially have near-dictatorial powers.

By , Correspondent

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    In this April 5 photo, the Muslim Brotherhood candidate for the presidency Khairat el-Shater leaves the Higher Presidential Elections Commission after submitting his candidacy papers, in Cairo.
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An Egyptian court yesterday suspended the body chosen to write Egypt’s new constitution, upending the country's timetable for political transition – and perhaps much more.

It is now clear that Egypt's new constitution will not be finished before a new president is elected by June. That means the old constitution, which gives the president near-dictatorial powers, will still prevail when the military council that has ruled Egypt for the past year is replaced. That elevates the stakes of the presidential contest considerably, and comes as a warning to Islamists that they could still be sidelined.

The court’s decision is a setback for the Muslim Brotherhood, which ambitiously set out to dominate the constitution-writing process and vie for the presidency after winning nearly 50 percent of parliamentary seats in recent elections.

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The Brotherhood and its Islamist allies had been poised to write the constitution without liberal, leftist, and other members, who resigned in protest that the constitution-writing body was not representative of Egypt. Together, those who resigned had comprised nearly a third of the 100-seat body, known as the constituent assembly.

The court ruled that the Islamist-dominated parliament had acted improperly in naming parliamentarians to fill half the 100 seats of the constituent assembly. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the largest parliamentary bloc, complained that "politics" had a hand in the judges' decision.

Omar Ashour, an expert on Islamist movements who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, said the court’s decision could signal a move by the ruling military council to intervene in the democratic transition. Removing the military from a political role is one of the major challenges Egypt faces in the years ahead.

“That the administrative court would enter into such a political and ideological battle is not a good sign,” he said. He noted that there are two court cases pending to dissolve the parliament, a move that could throw the transition into chaos.

Brotherhood defends its dominance: 'This is the will of the people'

Now some new body – its composition and selection process as yet unclear – will be tasked with writing the constitution. Some liberals rejoiced in the court’s decision, hoping it would result in a constituent assembly that was more inclusive.

Secular parties had wanted fewer of the members to come from the elected parliament, which is dominated by Islamist parties. In the three-stage election that spanned the end of last year and the beginning of 2012, the FJP and the ultraconservative Nour Party came in first and second, and then worked together to appoint the constituent assembly. 

Liberals objected not only to the fact that about 60 percent of the assembly came from an Islamist background but also to the apparent lack of criteria for selecting members, which meant a young spokesman for the Nour Party was included but notable constitutional experts were left off the panel. Few Christians or women were included, and Egypt's Bedouin and Nubian minorities were also underrepresented.

“This is the wish of the Egyptian people, who chose the Islamists by a large percentage,” said the Brotherhood’s secretary general, Mahmoud Hussein, in an interview at the group's headquarters on Sunday.

The Brotherhood has thrown its weight around since it won parliamentary elections, insisting that its victory gave it a popular mandate for the constituent assembly and breaking a year-long pledge not to field a presidential candidate. Over the weekend, the group announced it would register a second presidential candidate as a backup, in case their first choice, deputy leader Khairat El Shater, was disqualified.

(Mr. Shater, like many Brotherhood members, spent time in jail during Hosni Mubarak's rule. Though the Brotherhood says he's since received a full pardon, they fear he could still be disqualified.)

Dr. Hussein refuted criticisms of Islamist dominance and suggested that the military may have been behind the walkout of nearly a third of the constituent assembly's members. Because the constituent assembly would gather suggestions for the constitution from all Egyptians, he said, it didn’t matter if the body was representative of Egypt’s population.

“We want everyone to be represented, but this is not the issue,” said Hussein, speaking before the court ruling. He said those who withdrew from the committee were under outside pressure to derail the constituent assembly and thwart the democratic transition. “If it's the military council [behind the resignations], then they want to make sure there are enough people that are on their side in the constituent assembly that will enable them to have the constitution in their favor.”

At stake if rift persists: military intervention

In negotiations between the FJP and those who resigned from the committee, the secularists had requested a 60 percent to 75 percent support threshold for constitutional articles. Hussein said that was an attempt to ensure the military’s interests would be represented in the document. The other side claimed that the FJP’s insistence on having a majority was evidence that they intended to ram an Islamist constitution through the committee.

Some secular figures have indeed run to the military for political help against the Islamists. Others who resigned from the committee have refused military intervention.

But the Brotherhood, which was banned for decades before last year's revolution, is “still stuck in the victimhood mentality,” says Ashour. “Their perception is that, ‘It's a conspiracy and they're out to get us.' "  Ashour says the group needs to put aside that mentality, and both sides need to reconcile to avoid military intervention. “The rifts are real and you cannot deny the mistrust and the ideological animosity, but I think we have to move beyond this if we want this democratic transition to succeed,” he says.

The court decision could provide the impetus to end the standoff. Shater said in a statement yesterday that he respects the court's ruling, and called on "all national forces to sit together and reach better solutions to overcome this crisis."

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