Egypt's transition hits obstacle with backflip on constitution

Liberal politicians boycott commission on new constitution after Islamist groups reneg on deal to divide seats equally between Islamist and non-Islamist members.

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CAIRO // Liberals have boycotted a new commission to rewrite Egypt's constitution after Islamist groups reneged on a deal to divide seats equally between Islamist and non-Islamist members.

The walkout of four political parties late on Sunday could present yet another stumbling block in Egypt's transition to civilian rule. On Saturday and Sunday, Egyptians will return to the polls in a run-off vote to decide the presidency, but because of repeated delays and disputes over the constitutional commission the new leader will assume many of the broad powers that Hosni Mubarak had before he stepped aside last year.

Emad Gad, a member of parliament for the Egyptian Social Democratic party, said it would not take part in the commission because the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Salafist Al Nour Party were trying to dominate it.

"We are withdrawing from the constitutional assembly and we will try to force a repeat of negotiations over the appointees," he said.

It was not clear if the refusal to participate by the parties would legally hinder the formation of the commission, but it could undermine its authority.

A previous version of the commission was dissolved by a judicial panel in April after a group of liberals refused to take part because of what they described as attempts by the Freedom and Justice and Al Nour parties to dominate the writing of the constitution.

That dispute appeared to be resolved last week, when 22 political parties reached an agreement over how the seats would be divided among members of parliament and representatives from across Egyptian society and government.

The military had given political parties 48 hours to reach an agreement, or it would either revert to the 1971 constitution or unilaterally amend a constitutional declaration that has been in place since Mubarak stepped down.

Last week's deal was to allocate 39 of the 100 seats for political parties, of which the Freedom and Justice party would have 16 and Al Nour eight. Other parties would receive between one and five seats. The Egyptian Social Democratic party, which is now leading the boycott of the new commission, was to receive two seats.

The remainder would be distributed to judges, religious leaders, revolutionary youth activists, union members, constitutional scholars and one each for the police, army and justice ministry.

But Mr Gad said the Islamist parties told his party on Sunday night that they were seeking as many as 50 seats for representatives from their parties. Parliament is expected to meet today to begin deciding the appointees.

"They want to have the final say on everything," Mr Gad said.

Mahmoud Ghozlan, the spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood, countered in an interview with the Associated Press that parties who controlled just a sliver of seats in parliament were trying to impose their ideas on the rest of Egypt.

"They control maybe 6 or 7 per cent in parliament, but they want to force their opinion on almost 94 per cent," he said.

The constitutional commission will deliberate issues that could significantly affect Egyptian society and governance, such as whether to enshrine Islamic law in more definitive terms in the constitution and how to balance power between the executive and legislative branches.


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