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Egypt's Constitutional Debate Heats Up

The perception that Islamists intend to rig negotiations over a new constitution have reinforced and reignited Egypt's political divisions.
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Men pray in a Cairo mosque. Photograph by Asim Bharwani.

The first meeting of Egypt’s post-revolutionary constitutional assembly this week should have been a moment of celebration for Egyptian democrats. After decades of corrupt and often brutal authoritarian rule, they finally had an opportunity to reshape the country’s legal and political structures in accordance with the standards of 21st Century liberalism.

In the event, however, it served only to further exacerbate the social and ideological tensions which have beset Egyptian public life since the overthrow of the Mubarak regime last February, as well as intensify the increasingly bitter divisions between secular and Islamist political forces.

Legitimacy concerns

Even before the assembly formally convened on Wednesday afternoon, its legitimacy had been severely undermined. The day before, a coalition of leftists, secularists and liberals from an array of different parliamentary and non-parliamentary organisations had staged a press conference to explain why they would not be participating in the forthcoming constitutional negotiations.

Sameh Ashour, chairman of the Egyptian Lawyers' Syndicate and one of the coalition‘s spokesmen, complained that the official assembly was dominated by “one particular political stream” – namely Islamists, whether from the Freedom and Justice Party (the electoral vehicle of the Muslim Brotherhood) or the hard-line Salafist Al Nour Party. Others complained that the event was not representative of Egypt’s “diversity and plurality”.

These criticisms are far from unwarranted or opportunistic. Before the coalition announced its withdrawal, 65 of the assembly’s 100 members – 50 of whom were drawn from the parliament’s upper house and 50 from public life – belonged to Islamist parties. Meanwhile, just 6 seats went to women and 6 to Christians (calls for female representatives to account for at least a third of all delegates were ignored). What’s more, with the election of Saad El-Katatni, the Muslim Brotherhood also took the assembly’s influential chairmanship position.

Even without the boycott of liberal dissidents, there is no question that proceedings would have been dominated by Islamists.

Now, though, with the assembly controlled more or less exclusively by religious conservatives, there is a very high probability that the new constitution, when it is drawn up, will further entrench elements of Islamic Sharia teaching into the fabric of the country’s legal system. This raises concerns about the future of the civil and social liberties of women and minority religious groups in Egypt.

Power imbalance

The imbalance of power in the assembly poses an additional danger. Since the Muslim Brotherhood won the first round of parliamentary elections in November, there have been rumours that it was preparing to strike a deal with Egypt’s current military rulers, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The suspicion is that any such deal would see political power divided between SCAF and the Brotherhood.

The assembly, which is charged with the task of determining the extent of the powers held by the legislative and executive branches of government, could facilitate this if Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi, the head of SCAF, decides, as many think he will, to run for president later this year and wins.

Under these circumstances, Egypt would have a parliament run by the Brotherhood and an executive controlled by the military.

The Islamist response

Islamists have responded to criticism from the secular-liberal coalition by insisting that their claims do not provide the complete picture. They point out, first of all, that the assembly, far from being skewed or rigged in their favour, merely reflects the make-up of the national parliament which, following the elections, is heavily dominated by the main religio-political groupings.

They also point out that if secularists feel politically under-represented, they have only themselves to blame. After all, it was their failure to generate more popular support and their inability to organise effectively which produced such a lacklustre performance at the ballot box.

Nonetheless, in a statement released on Tuesday, the coalition pledged to press ahead with the drawing up of an alternative constitution. The statement read, “We shall undertake this duty from outside the official assembly in collaboration with all the segments of society and experts that should have been included from the beginning”. In fact, the boycott even drew muted support from some within the Islamist parties, with one Islamist MP, Yasser Salah El-Kadi, issuing the an appeal to his colleagues, saying: “I call on the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafi Nour Party, to which I am honoured to belong, to open the door to communication and dialogue”.

Within the last few hours, the voices calling on the official assembly to be made more inclusive – or perhaps even disbanded and reformed – have grown louder. The Egyptian Supreme Constitutional Court and al-Azhar University have both withdrawn their representatives and it seems increasingly likely that the Coptic Christian Church will do the same. This episode underscores just how profoundly unsettled and uncertain political life in post-Mubarak Egypt really is.

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