Middle East

Islamists are majority on Egypt constitution panel

March 24: Members of Egypt's Parliament attend a session in Cairo, Egypt.

March 24: Members of Egypt's Parliament attend a session in Cairo, Egypt.  (AP)

Egypt's Islamists have won a sizable majority on a 100-member panel tasked with drafting a new constitution, according to a list of names published Sunday by the country's official news agency. The list reinforces fears by secular and liberal Egyptians that the Islamists dominating parliament will pack the panel with supporters and ignore concerns of other groups.

The new constitution will determine the balance of power between Egypt's previously all-powerful president and parliament, and define the country's future identity, including the role of religion and minority rights.

The constitutional committee will have nearly 60 Islamists in all, including 37 legislators selected Saturday by parliament's two chambers. Half the panel will comprise public figures, also selected by members of parliament.

A handful of Christians and women were selected and there were only a few names from the revolutionary movement behind last year's ouster of longtime authoritarian leader Hosni Mubarak.

The announcement of the panel's makeup was followed by the sudden emergence of a public dispute between the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's largest political group, and the ruling generals who took power following Mubarak's ouster more than a year ago.

The Brotherhood's political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, accused the generals of trying to "hinder" the transition to democratic rule. In a statement posted on its website, it also raised concern that presidential elections due in May could be rigged to benefit a "certain candidate" it did not identify.

The party, it added, is studying proposals to field its own candidate, reversing an earlier decision not to do so.

The ruling military and the Muslim Brotherhood have emerged as Egypt's two most powerful forces since Mubarak's ouster and an enduring quarrel between the two could put in serious jeopardy the transfer of power promised by the military for before the end of June. The presidential vote is due on May 23-24 and the winner will be announced June 21 after a runoff between the two candidates with the most votes.

The dispute also comes at a time when the Freedom and Justice Party, which controls just under half of the seats in parliament, is stepping up its criticism of the military-backed government and is calling for its dismissal. It is arguing that the government has failed to resolve any of the crises facing the nation, including an acute fuel shortage, rampant crime and a worsening economy.

"The (ruling) military council bears full responsibility for attempts to hinder the process of democratic transition and ... exporting crises to future governments," said the party's statement, suggesting that the military and the Cabinet were manufacturing the problems to discredit a future government likely to be led by the Brotherhood.

The generals' response was swift. In a statement carried by the official news agency, they described as "baseless" attempts to cast doubt on the integrity of the forthcoming presidential elections and pointed out they were the ones who planned and executed recent parliamentary elections. The vote was widely viewed as the freest in the nation's history.

The quarrel between the military and the Brotherhood adds to the uncertainty surrounding Egypt's efforts to establish a democracy after decades of authoritarian rule by Mubarak's regime.

Liberal lawmakers say a permanent constitution should not be written only or influenced by those who won a majority in a single election.

Some Islamists previously had indicated that they would seek to write the constitution by "consensus," but doubts among secular and liberal Egyptians increased last week after parliament's two chambers jointly decided to allocate half of the panel's seats to its own members, three-quarters of whom are Islamists.

Half of those are from the Brotherhood, which until now has been vague about what it wants the constitution to include. But they also include ultraconservatives known as Salafis, many of whom have called for the constitution to reflect hardline interpretations of Islamic Sharia law.

The country's most prominent democracy advocate, Mohamed ElBaradei, was not included on the panel, a glaring omission of a figure whose vocal opposition to Mubarak's regime in the year prior to its overthrow injected energy into the youth groups that engineered last year's uprising.

They perceive the omission of ElBaradei and the failure to give the revolutionaries more than a token representation on the panel as the latest move by the Islamists and the ruling generals who took over from Mubarak to further sideline them following their poor showing in parliamentary elections swept by the better-organized Islamists.