CAIRO – Egypt's march to democracy hit another obstacle Tuesday when liberals boycotted a parliament session called to name members of a panel to draw up a new constitution, complaining that Islamists are trying to dominate the process.
A new constitution is key to Egypt's turbulent transition to democratic rule after decades of authoritarian regimes. Many Egyptians hope the new charter will curtail the powers enjoyed by their presidents and enshrine freedom of expression and peaceful protests.
However, some fear that Islamists may want the document to inject more religion in government and restrict liberties.
The joint session of parliament's two chambers, which are dominated by Islamists, was called by military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi after negotiations between political factions to agree on the makeup of the panel reached a deadlock.
A court ruling disbanded a previous panel that was packed with Islamists. Liberal lawmakers say the Islamists were again seeking to dominate the new panel, and have filed a court case to declare the body illegal. The voting for the panel members went ahead without the estimated 60 lawmakers who walked out. Votes were being counted late Tuesday. The joint session included more than 600 lawmakers.
The powers of Egypt's key state institutions have been the subject of intense dispute since the military council suspended the old constitution and took power when Mubarak stepped down in February 2011.
"It's Egypt's constitution we are talking about here," said Ahmed Said, leader of the secularist Free Egyptians party. "The math of majority and minority should not apply."
Other non-Islamist lawmakers complained that the parliament hurriedly adopted legislation late Monday night to govern the selection and work of the panel. They saw the move as an attempt by the Islamists to head off a possible court ruling disbanding the new panel.
"I see that what has been done carries a hint of unconstitutionality," said independent lawmaker Youssef el-Badry. "We have pulled out rather than take part in an illegal process."
Muslim Brotherhood lawmakers say they are abiding by an agreement reached with non-Islamist groups that they equally share the 100 seats. Liberals counter that the Brotherhood and other Islamists are giving their lawmakers more seats than agreed and devising a selection process that would give their supporters some of the seats assigned to other groups.
The liberals insist that the drafting of the constitution should not be influenced by the Islamist parties dominating parliament. The Brotherhood and other Islamist parties won more than 70 percent of the seats in the elections held over three months starting in November.
The result of the first round of the presidential election held last month saw non-Islamists in a field of 13 candidates win more than half the votes. However, because they split their votes among several of the 13, none of them made the two-person runoff.
That will pit Brotherhood figure Mohammed Morsi against Ahmed Shafiq, Mubarak's last prime minister June 16-17 — leaving the young, mostly secular Egyptians who drove the uprising last year with no representative.
Liberals, secularists, women and minority Christians say the Islamists want to dominate the process of writing a new constitution to give it an Islamist slant. The move, they claim, is part of a grand design by the Brotherhood and its allies to take over the main state institutions, including the executive and the legislature.
"It is a constitutional panel in which Egyptians don't see themselves represented," top reform campaigner and Nobel Peace laureate Mohamed ElBaradei wrote on his Twitter account on Tuesday. "It is the end of a transitional period in which they are trying to bury the revolution and impound the future."
The delay in drafting a new constitution is one of several legal disputes that have plagued the transitional period, any one of which could throw the process into disarray.
On Thursday, Egypt's highest court — the Supreme Constitutional Court — rules on whether legislation banning Mubarak regime figures from running for office is constitutional. If it is approved, Shafiq would be booted out of the race, the runoff vote would be canceled and the first round of voting would be repeated.
The court could also uphold a lower court ruling that the law governing parliamentary elections was unconstitutional. That decision could lead to the dissolution of the parliament or a partial repeat of the election.
In a separate development on Tuesday, prosecutors requested to lift parliamentary immunity from two lawmakers.
One was an Islamist lawmaker caught by police last week while "violating public decency" with a woman in a car parked on a quiet street along the Cairo-Alexandria highway. Ali Wanees denies the charge.
The allegation against Wanees is particularly embarrassing since he belongs to the ultraconservative Salafi doctrine which advocates a strict interpretation of Islam's Shariah law, including the segregation of the sexes.
In the second case, military prosecutors are seeking to question lawmaker Ziad el-Oleimi for allegedly insulting Egypt's military ruler in February. El-Oleimi, who was beaten by military police during a protest after he was elected, referred to Tantawi as a donkey during a rally earlier this month. El-Oleimi used the word as part of an Egyptian proverb.
He said that the case against him proves that "Mubarak's regime has not fallen". He said if his immunity is lifted, he could be tried in a military court.
"It will not be fair," he told The Associated Press.
Associated Press correspondent Aya Batrawy contributed to this report.