CAIRO – Egypt's highest court lashed out Tuesday at an Islamist-led panel tasked with writing the country's new constitution, saying that some provisions proposed for the text undercut the court's mandate and keep it under the president's power.
The work — and the composition — of the 100-member constitutional assembly has been the subject of a fierce debate in Egypt, and the country is still haggling over disputed articles in the charter, some of which will determine the role of religion in the nation's affairs and the independence of the judiciary.
Supporters of the panel drafting the constitution say it was set up by an elected parliament and broadly represents Egypt's political factions. Critics say the process is dominated by a majority made up of Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood from which Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, hails, and more radical groups, when it should be more consensual.
With the nation increasingly polarized, and mistrust between Islamists and other groups growing, the country's judiciary has emerged as a lifeline and final arbiter for settling most disputes. More than 40 legal challenges have been presented to the country's top administrative court demanding the dissolution of the current panel.
Egypt's High Administrative Court put off a widely expected decision on the challenges Tuesday for next week, prolonging the suspense over the fate of the second panel to write the country's new charter. An earlier panel, also dominated by Islamists, was dissolved in April through the same court, which ruled its make-up didn't adhere to a constitutional declaration designed by the country's former military rulers.
The rising influence of the Islamists was solidified through early parliamentary elections in Egypt, giving them nearly 75 percent of seats in parliament, and subsequently, control over the making of the constitutional assembly, which was drawn up by the parliament.
"Instead of a consensus building from the outset, we got this extreme polarization and these elections," said Nasser Amin, a judicial affairs expert. "The judiciary has become the safety valve, the only place that everyone resorts to for settling disputes. Otherwise, it will be a blood bath."
The current panel released a partial first draft of the charter last week in which most of the provisions related to the Supreme Constitutional Court are identical to the outgoing constitution — the president has the right to appoint the head of the court and the rest of its 15 members after receiving nominations from lower courts.
On Tuesday, judges from the SCC held a rare news conference during which they sharply criticized the constitutional panel.
Tahani el-Gibaly, a member of the SCC, said that provisions that touch on the court, which rules on the constitutionality of laws, are "disastrous."
El-Gibaly said the constitutional assembly has turned down suggestions to free the court from the president's grip and "ensure its independence" from the country's executive and legislative powers. She said the panel ignored proposals to allow other courts, rather than the president, to select the members of the SCC as well as its chief judge.
One new article introduced by the panel would strip the SCC of the authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws after they are passed by parliament, leaving it only the power to rule on them beforehand.
"The revolution was about ensuring a democratic system, with balanced powers to protect the rights of the Egyptian citizen, but these clauses violate these rights," el-Gibaly said.
The court's chief judge, Maher el-Behiri, told reporters the court is in permanent session in protest.
Maher Sami, the court spokesman, accused Islamists on the panel of trying to "topple the Constitutional Court ... and settle scores between them and the court."
Sami appeared to be referring to the court's decision in June to disband parliament, which was dominated by lawmakers from the Muslim Brotherhood, with its ruling that the election law that oversaw parliamentary polls was unconstitutional. The Islamists responded by accusing the court of being home to Mubarak-era judges.
With so much at stake in the new constitution, the panel writing the charter has come under mounting criticism in recent weeks.
Most of the debate has centered on the wording of the role of Shariah, or Islamic law, the role of unelected religious scholars in reviewing laws, as well as the protection of the rights of women and religious minorities. Liberals and secularists have expressed concern with what they see as a growing role of conservative Islam in the charter, while ultra-conservative Islamists, known as Salafis, are pushing for the strict and full implementation of Shariah.
That ideological standoff moved to the streets on Friday, when thousands of members and supporters of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood group clashed with anti-Islamist protesters denouncing what they say are the Brotherhood's attempts to plant its members in the state institutions and produce a charter that serves the group's agenda.
The constitutional panel has pushed forward with its work, despite a slew of legal challenges to its mandate and its composition.
The current panel was formed in June but liberals challenged it with more than 40 appeals, citing the fact that some members of the panel have been appointed in government positions.
If the current panel is also dissolved, Morsi holds the power to appoint a new panel replacing it.
In a separate legal dispute, a flamboyant TV presenter who was on trial over accusations he insulted the president on air and suggested it was permissible to kill him was acquitted Tuesday. The court said Morsi did not present any evidence to prove the charges or appear in court to pursue his complaints.
Popular presenter Tawfiq Okasha had denied the charges, saying they were part of a political row between him and the Muslim Brotherhood. Okasha's TV station has been off air since the case was filed against him in August.
Associated Press Writer Sarah El Deeb contributed to this report from Cairo