Egypt's Islamists give secular parties equal role in constitution writing

Islamists and secularists agreed to a 50-50 split on the constituent assembly, tasked with writing a new constitution. The deal came after the military issued a 48-hour ultimatum.

Amr Nabil/AP
Egyptian protesters shout slogans at a protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Friday, June 8. Hundreds gathered in Tahrir Square, the focal point of Egyptian uprising, to demonstrate against presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq, Hosni Mubarak's last prime minister, ahead of a run-off vote.

Egypt’s political forces have reached an 11th-hour agreement on who will write a new constitution, ending a months-long deadlock and barely averting unilateral action by the ruling military council. The deal is a boost for secularists as the military prepares to hand over power to a civilian government by July. 

Writing a new constitution is a key step in Egypt’s transition because it will not only define the powers of the new president and the parliament, but it will also lay out the relationship between Islam and the state and define the military’s role in politics.

The military has indicated that it will attempt to retain its political influence and privileges even after handing power to an elected president, and this week threatened to unilaterally impose a constitutional declaration if political parties had not reached a consensus by Thursday.

Under this ultimatum, the two sides resolved a bitter deadlock over how much sway Islamists and secularists would each have over the constituent assembly, tasked with writing the new constitution.

Secular parties wanted enough influence to be able to block attempts to make the constitution more Islamic, while the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party (FJP) wanted the body to reflect the makeup of the parliament. Egyptians voted overwhelmingly for Islamist parties in December elections, giving such parties nearly three-fourths of the seats in parliament, though in the first round of presidential elections more than 50 percent of the vote went to non-Islamic candidates.  

After nearly six hours of negotiation Thursday, the parties agreed that the 100-member body will be divided evenly between secular and Islamist forces. The 50-50 split is a victory for secular and liberal parties, who make up only about a quarter of the parliament. They had boycotted the first assembly that was formed after Islamist parties dominated it, and a court later dissolved the body.

"I think this is very important. This is a great step to protect Egypt against writing an Islamic constitution," says Mohamed Aboulghar, the leader of the secular-oriented Egyptian Social Democratic Party.

The FJP didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Firsthand account of negotiations

Talks Wednesday ended in deadlock despite going into the wee hours. The FJP had originally insisted on retaining 55 percent of the seats on the constituent assembly, but secular parties refused to budge on their demand of an even split.

Dr. Aboulghar says the negotiations yesterday afternoon again dragged on into the night, as the FJP representatives took breaks to phone the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to confer. The meeting was held at the Ministry of Defense, where mobile phone signals are blocked. Each time the FJP representatives wanted to make a phone call, they had to leave the building, he says.

Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Egypt’s de facto leader, was in the meeting, as well as Gen. Sami Enan and six other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which took over when a popular uprising ousted President Hosni Mubarak last year.

Each time the two sides reached an impasse, the generals would threaten to issue their own constitutional declaration or revert back to the 1971 constitution, says Aboulghar, spurring more compromise. He adds that they did not otherwise intervene in the discussions.

A week to presidential run-off

The breakthrough comes just a week before a run-off election that will decide Egypt’s next president, as a cloud of legal and political uncertainty hangs over the last few weeks of Egypt’s transition to a civilian government.

Egypt’s High Constitutional Court is expected to hear a case next week on a law that could disqualify Ahmed Shafiq (see profile), one of the candidates in the run-off race. It is also expected to hear a case related to the law that governed Egypt’s parliamentary elections. If the court finds the law was unconstitutional, it could dissolve the newly elected parliament.

Such uncertainty, along with the desire to avoid military intervention, likely helped persuade the Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP to compromise. Another factor was likely the Brotherhood's desire to win goodwill among political forces and popular opinion in support of its presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi (see profile).

The political parties will meet tomorrow to agree on the names of the committee members, and will negotiate over the non-political members to ensure an even split between figures associated with political Islam and those considered secular.

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