Egypt: Constitution panel on track despite boycott

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The head of Egypt's constitutional assembly said Wednesday the committee will forge ahead with its work despite appeals from liberals, Christians and others who walked out in protest against the Islamist domination of the panel.

The walkouts are angry that the Islamist majority parliament appointed a panel that they say is not representative of minorities and other political factions. More than 20 panel members who withdrew, including a representative of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni learning institute, and Christian representatives of the Coptic Church, demand the panel be totally redrawn.

The makeup of the 100-member panel, which currently boasts 60 people affiliated with Islamist groups, is a highly contentious issue in the country. The new constitution will determine whether Egypt leans toward more conservative Islam and whether the decades-old system that concentrated power in the hands of the president will be maintained or replaced by an empowered parliament under an Islamist majority.

Liberals and secular-minded Egyptians, who fear an Islamist-dominated committee will write an Islam-inflected constitution, say a new charter should be written by a broad swath of Egyptian society and not by a parliamentary majority.

Saad el-Katatni, the head of the panel and a leading member of the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood that dominates parliament, said the walkouts have until Tuesday to consider a proposal to replace members of the panel from a list of reserves already selected by lawmakers.

"This is a committee that was formed and elected to work," he told the meeting in comments broadcast live on television. "We won't hold up its work, and we will continue our path."

Islamist panel member Nader Bakkar said the proposal is to replace 10 members from a reserve list of 40 people. If the walkouts don't return, reserves will be used to fill all the walkouts' seats.

Ahmed el-Naggar, a committee member who pulled out, rejected the proposal, saying reserve members are predominantly Islamists, and that the suggestion doesn't address the walkouts' fundamental complaint -- the panel's lopsided composition. He also said religious institutions, such as Al-Azhar and the Coptic Church, were underrepresented.

"Islam has become what it means to the Brotherhood and the Salafis only," he said.

Egypt's Islamist groups, including both the Brotherhood and the ultraconservative Salafis, make up nearly three-quarters of parliament after sweeping the vote in the first elections since the uprising that ousted longtime President Hosni Mubarak last year.

Some Islamists on the panel say the number of walkouts is insufficient to call for its dissolution and the creation of a new panel from scratch, while others contend that an elected Islamist majority is entitled to dominate the process.

Critics counter by saying that the new constitution's legitimacy could be threatened if the views of those who are boycotting the process -- representatives of minorities, women, religious institutions and political factions -- are left out.

With so much at stake, some liberals and secular-minded Egyptians who have at times been critical of the generals who took power after Mubarak's ouster have urged the military to simply dissolve the constitutional assembly and name a new panel.

That idea was put to rest Wednesday by Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, a member of both the ruling military council and the committee, who said the military won't intervene or meddle in the constitution-writing process.

"The panel doesn't need interference from the ruling military council or anybody. We reaffirm this and we will protect it," Shaheen told the panel.

Some members of the panel who attended Wednesday's session called for the committee to be redrawn to prevent the crisis from spiraling out of control.

"The Egyptian people must be convinced," said Sherif Abdel-Azim, a member of the panel. "This is dangerous for the future of Egypt."