Egyptian parliamentarians are meeting to name the panel that will draft the country’s new constitution amid deep polarization between liberals and Islamists over the process.
The Saturday meeting is likely to be part of a weeks-long struggle over the charter that will define Egypt’s identity. After the panel writes the constitution, it will be put to a vote in a national referendum. The old 1971 constitution was abolished after the uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak last year.
Liberal judges and activists have filed legal challenges to the decision by the Islamist-dominated parliament to appoint 50 of the 100 council members from their ranks and 50 from outside.
Critics say the Islamist majority intends to control the writing of the constitution.
Several of the groups that spearheaded the revolt against Mubarak now fear that the Islamists, who swept to victory in parliamentary and senate elections after Mubarak's downfall, want to exert control over the process.
They have called for marches to the Cairo convention center where the legislators are gathered.
According to a schedule established by the military, the panel is meant to finish its work before presidential elections, which now seems unlikely ahead of the vote due to be held in May.
Some presidential candidates fear that could leave the new president without constitutionally defined powers, while the dominant Islamist Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) angles to give more powers to a prime minister in the new charter.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s party has been pressuring the military to sack the cabinet and appoint a FJP-led government.
At Saturday’s joint session, which began at noon local time (1000 GMT), the lawmakers were each to list 100 members they want appointed to the panel and then cast their ballots in 14 boxes, parliamentary speaker Saad al-Katatni said.
Thirteen of the lawmakers on the panel are senators, and the rest parliamentarians, while the 50 others are split between public figures and representatives of labor syndicates, in which Islamists are heavily involved.
Liberals fear that the Islamists will try to beef up references to Islam in the new constitution.
The old charter said that the principles of Islamic law were the source of legislation, a vague formulation that hardliners in the ultra-conservative Salafi Nur party want clarified in the new constitution.
But the FJP, the political arm of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, has sought to allay fears that it wants a stricter adherence to Islamic law in the new constitution.
In a comment on his Twitter account, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former U.N. nuclear watchdog chief turned Egyptian dissident, questioned parliament’s right to form the panel.
“A parliament whose legitimacy is in doubt will elect a panel, half of it from parliament, that is not partial to forming a constitution for Egypt rather than for the (parliamentary) majority,” he wrote.
The independent Al-Shorouk daily reported that the Cairo administrative court was considering a petition by a legal expert and 17 activists and media personalities against the election of the panel by parliament.
The petitioners argue that drafting the constitution, which defines the powers of parliament, should not be left to the legislature.