CAIRO – An Egyptian court on Tuesday asked the country's highest tribunal to rule on whether to disband the body tasked with writing a new constitution. That could give Islamists time to finish drafting the document before a legal ruling.
It's the latest twist in a bitter struggle between Islamists and their secular rivals over the constitution. The Islamists, who dominate the constitutional assembly, are racing to put a draft before a public referendum before the judges rule.
The work and the composition of the 100-member constitutional assembly have been the subject of a fierce debate. The focus is the potential for stricter implementation of Islamic Shariah law and empowerment of religious scholars that liberals fear could signal a turn toward an Iran-style theocratic state.
Along with the contentious role of religion in the nation's affairs, Islamists and liberals are haggling over other proposed articles relating to women rights, freedom of worship, presidential powers, immunity for the military from civilian oversight and undercutting the powers of the Supreme Constitutional Court.
Supporters of the panel say it was set up by an elected parliament and broadly represents Egypt's political factions. Critics counter that the process is dominated by majority Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt's new president, Mohammed Morsi, and more radical groups.
A new constitution would be a key step in establishing a democracy to replace the regime of longtime President Hosni Mubarak, who was ousted last year in an uprising led by progressive, secular activists. They rallied public anger over poverty, Mubarak's tight grip on power, rampant corruption and widespread abuses by security and intelligence agencies.
But in the nearly 20 months since then, Islamists have emerged as the strongest political force. Morsi was elected president after the Brotherhood and the even more conservative Salafis party swept parliamentary elections, leaving the liberals with minimal representation. The parliament was later disbanded.
Instead of ruling on a petition submitted by liberals challenging the legitimacy of the panel, Judge Nazih Tangho of the High Administrative Court on Tuesday sent the case to Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court.
The decision sets up a new showdown between the Supreme Constitutional Court, packed with secularist judges, and Egypt's ruling and powerful Brotherhood. The same court dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament, ruled the election law unconstitutional and turned down Morsi's attempt to restore it upon his election in June.
Last week, the Constitutional Court criticized the panel's move to strip the court's power right to rule on laws passed by parliament. The proposed articles also maintain the president's grip over the court, as he appoints its head and members.
It was not known when the top court would rule on the petition. However, the ruling could come after the people have voted on the constitution.
Tangho said he referred to the case to the Constitutional Court to look into a law Morsi passed in July that gave the constitutional panel legal immunity.
"The law was meant to prevent the High Administrative Court from looking into appeals ... against the panel," he said.
A senior Brotherhood member, Ahmed Abu Baraka, said, "the court here is saying that this is not my business and I am not interfering in the writing of the constitution nor its panel, in respect to the principle of separation between powers."
"This is a realistic decision and ends political maneuvers that dragged courts and judiciary in the middle of it," he said.
The Muslim Brotherhood's political arm, Freedom and Justice Party, praised the ruling as ushering "a new meeting point to all spectrum of the Egyptian society." In a statement, the party called upon its rivals to get involved in the writing of the constitution.
The constitution panel was disbanded once before, in April, after the High Administrative Court ruled against inclusion of lawmakers as members.
With the nation increasingly polarized, and mistrust between Islamists and other groups growing, Egypt's judiciary has emerged as a final refuge for settling key disputes.
More than 40 legal challenges have been presented to the top administrative court demanding the dissolution of the panel writing the charter.
"We are going to witness a new phase of confrontation between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Constitutional Court," said Ziad Abdel Tawab, a legal expert with Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies. "The process will linger, for sure."