Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 March 2012
Issue No. 1087
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Battle of the 100

While parliament debates the composition of the constitutional committee to draft the backbone of the state, Amani Maged anticipates heated discussion

A new kind of conflict has emerged between Islamists and liberals in parliament: about the new constitution or, more specifically, the 100-member committee to draft it. The sweeping victory of Islamists in both the Shura Council and the People's Assembly -- 80 per cent -- has generated questions about the criteria MPs will apply in selecting the constitutional committee, prompting secular, liberal and leftist MPs to voice concerns over an Islamist monopoly of the 100-man board.

According to item 60 of the Constitutional Declaration of 30 March, 2011, Shura and People's Assembly members were to have a joint meeting to be called by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) within six months of being elected. They were to elect a constitutional committee of 100 members tasked with proposing a new constitution to be completed within six months and presented to the people within 15 days in the form of a referendum, and implemented as of the date on which the people approve it.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood which holds the most seats in parliament, 47 per cent, has thus proposed a constitutional committee composed of 40 members from parliament and 60 from outside parliament. Half of the latter number are to be to chosen by the two houses and half to be elected by unions, syndicates and Al-Azhar. On Saturday, 3 March, a 30-member board will be chosen at the joint parliamentary session to put in place the final criteria and procedures for the selection of the 100-member constitutional committee.

According to Mohamed Morsi, the president of the Freedom and Justice Party, all sectors of society will be represented in the committee, including women and the young, as well as unions and NGOs, universities, economic bodies, Al-Azhar and the Coptic Orthodox Church. Essam El-Eryan, the deputy president and spokesman of the party, says the party is currently undertaking bilateral negotiations with the various political forces to discuss the constitutional committee.

While the proposition of the Freedom and Justice Party has found support in the Salafist Nour Party, the second majority party in parliament, whose members agreed to in the 40 parliamentary members on the grounds that the parliament represents the people, most other political forces have opposed it. Their concern is that such a method of going about forming the constitutional committee will result in a Freedom and Justice monopoly over the constitution.

Nabil Zaki, the spokesman of Al-Tagammu Party, has called for separating the selection of the constitutional committee from parliament, while Mahmoud El-Khodeiri, the head of the Jurisdiction Committee within the People's Assembly and himself a Freedom and Justice candidate, said that the proportion of members of parliament in the constitutional committee should not exceed 20 per cent. For their part the revolutionary forces have called for a constitutional committee from outside parliament altogether, the better to represent a true picture of society including the full range of its spectrum and not just those hues that have proved successful at gaining parliamentary votes.

Constitutional experts feel that, in forming the constitutional committee, parliament should seek full social representation, not restricting the selection to legal and religious authorities as has been the custom in the past. Politicians, businessmen, media figures, unionists, artists and sports figures should all be represented as well. At the same time some politicians have pointed out that the existing constitution, which was amended prior to the revolution, has not been annulled in practise -- since, in accepting the initial constitutional amendment subsequent to the revolution by referendum, the people voted on eight out of 71 terms, leaving 63 terms intact.

In this and other ways the political arena seems to be in turmoil as a result of the impending decision on the constitutional committee. But the Freedom and Justice Party's vision for the constitution itself, according to Morsi, involves almost no change in the first four sections, with the fifth section -- dealing with the powers of the president of the republic -- significantly rewritten. He suggests that power should be shared by the president and the majority government.

The constitution-drafting committees will each deal with one of its subjects: experts in political science and state theory will deal with the form of the state, the nature of the political system and the legal relations between citizen and state; sociologists, cultural, intellectual and religious authorities will deal with the basic principles and constituent elements of society, to be divided into two -- social and moral, and economic -- subcommittees; a third committee will tackle rights and duties; a fourth, the principles of legal sovereignty; and a fifth, the system of government, to be divided into subcommittees dealing with the presidency, judicial authority, and executive power.

That latter subcommittee will be further subdivided, with a branch of it dealing specifically with the presidential versus the parliamentary system. In the case of a semi-presidential system, yet another committee will be dealing with the president's role, his jurisdiction and his relations with the second executive power and with parliament.

Few expect that Islamists will have a monopoly on the drafting of the constitution, partly -- it is believed -- because the Muslim Brothers are aware enough of the issue to include Copts, seculars and liberals as well as human rights representatives. Yet concern about the Brothers remains paramount.

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