Tentative deal reached on Egypt constitution panel

A showdown over who will write Egypt's new constitution appeared have been averted yesterday after legislators from the main political parties reach a deal about the structure of a commission that will draft the charter.

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CAIRO // A showdown over who will write Egypt's new constitution appeared have been averted yesterday after legislators from the main political parties reached a tentative deal about the structure of a commission that will draft the charter.

The representatives agreed that 39 of the 100 seats would be given to political parties, with the remainder divided among religious figures, union members, government officials, judges, constitutional scholars, and revolutionary groups, according to the state-run Al Ahram newspaper.

However, representatives from the liberal Free Egyptians, Egyptian Social Democratic and Tagammu parties walked out of negotiations because of what they said were attempts by the Muslim Brotherhood to retain a majority that "allows it to impose its will" on the others in the commission.

The uneasy agreement came before an ultimatum given by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (Scaf), a group of generals who took control of Egypt after Hosni Mubarak resigned last year, to agree on a structure. If they failed, the Scaf said it would unilaterally create a structure or revert the country to the 1971 constitution.

Still, the commission will not likely begin work in earnest until after the presidential run-off elections scheduled for June 16 and 17, which means Egypt's new president will assume office with the same wide powers that Mubarak had.

The constitutional commission will deliberate over issues that could have a significant effect on Egyptian society and governance. Among the most controversial topics is whether Islamic law will dominate the constitution and how to balance power between the executive and legislative branches.

Legal analysts said the problem with the 1971 constitution was that it allowed the Mubarak regime to circumvent the rights of citizens through mechanisms such as the "emergency law", which allowed the government to arrest and detain people without due process or trial. That law was not renewed by Scaf this week, marking the first time that Egypt was not in a state of emergency since 1981.

The original 100-member commission came to a standstill in April when a group of liberals and secularists refused to take part because of what they described as an attempt by Islamist members of parliament to pack the commission with their own representatives in a bid to dominate the writing of the constitution.

Under a declaration that Scaf implemented after suspending the country's 1971 constitution last year, parliament was given the power to form the commission and appoint its members. The declaration did not spell out how parliament should appoint the members.

In the first commission, representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party and the more conservative Islamist Al Nour Party - who together control more than 70 per cent of the seats in parliament - appointed more than 60 members seen as sympathetic to their views, giving them considerable power over the writing of the constitution.

Immediately, more than 20 members resigned and a court suspended the commission, while a judicial panel reviewed the legality of its formation. It was unclear yesterday whether that review is continuing.

The new structure of the commission represents a broader swathe of Egyptian society, including groups that have had little success in winning elections over the last year. One of the agreements was to appoint 10 "revolutionary youth" to the new commission and seven members of workers and farmers unions, as well as one representative from each of the police, the army and Ministry of Justice, according to Al Ahram.

It will also include five representatives from Al Azhar, the Sunni Islam university, and four from the Coptic Church.

A top judge told The National in February that the process of rewriting the constitution was at risk of being unrepresentative because there were no concurrent nationwide discussions about what Egyptians wanted from a new charter.

"I'm worried about the overall process of rewriting the constitution," said Adel Omar Sherif, one of Egypt's 19 Supreme Constitutional Court justices. "There is a focus on timelines and not on canvassing the people about what they really want. Writing a constitution must be an inclusive process … I haven't seen any of this."



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With additional reporting by Bloomberg News