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.

Nasser Nasser/AP
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.

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.

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 He said a total of 28 people have withdrawn from the assembly, including those elected as alternates.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

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 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 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.

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.

 (This is an updated version of a story that first ran on March 28).

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