Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 April 2012
Issue No. 1092
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

A 'stillborn' assembly

As the constituent assembly meets without a quarter of its members its claims to be representative are fast descending into farce, writes Gamal Essam El-Din

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The constituent assembly continues its meetings despite the boycott of a quarter of its members

The Islamist-dominated constituent assembly entrusted with drafting Egypt's new constitution held its second meeting yesterday despite the continued boycott of a quarter of its members.

People's Assembly Speaker Saad El-Katatni, who also chairs the constituent assembly, formed a nine-member committee following the constituent assembly's first meeting on 28 March, tasked with convincing members to end their boycott. It has so far been unsuccessful.

Among the setbacks facing the assembly is the withdrawal of the support of Al-Azhar. Grand Imam of Al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmed El-Tayeb said that Sunni Islam's leading seat of learning had withdrawn its representative because the assembly "fails to reflect all sectors of Egyptian society and is biased in favour of a single religious group". Mahmoud Azab, El-Tayeb's senior advisor, added that "Al-Azhar believes the assembly is illegitimate and its decisions will be incapable of meeting the aspirations of the Egyptian people."

On Tuesday the 20-member Holy Synod of the Coptic Church unanimously voted for the withdrawal of its two elected members. "It is inappropriate to continue to be represented on the constituent assembly given the reservations expressed over its formation by a majority of political forces," said the Synod.

The Catholic and Anglican churches have adopted a similar position to the Coptic Church.

The presidential advisory council, headed by Bar Association Chairman Sameh Ashour, also issued a statement questioning the assembly's legitimacy. "The constituent assembly is unrepresentative of Egyptians," it said. "A new constitutional declaration should be issued by the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces specifying how the constituent assembly is formed. Article 60 of the current declaration was so vague that it has left the assembly in the hands of one force."

Non-Islamist political parties have rejected all overtures to rejoin the assembly. The Wafd Party said on Monday that there was no way its five representatives could be participants in the meetings of an assembly "elected in such a flawed way". Wafd Chairman El-Sayed El-Badawi said "the assembly was stillborn for the simple reason that one political force insisted on monopolising it."

"The forces of political Islam decided to occupy the assembly's seats at the expense of every other shade of opinion," said a joint statement issued by the Egyptian Democratic Socialist and the Free Egyptians Parties. The two parties are filing a joint appeal with the Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) to assess whether Article 60 of the constitutional declaration, governing the formation of the assembly, is unconstitutional.

Ali Awa, the SCC's representative on the assembly, withdrew before its first meeting was over.

The chairmen of the syndicates of lawyers, cinema actors and press have all opted out of the assembly. Mamdouh Kholousi and Mohamed Abdel-Gawad Sameh, the Islamist chairmen of the pharmacists and engineers syndicates, remain. Calls to boycott the assembly's meetings, they said, "reflect the opinion of the minority".

More than 30 political parties and revolutionary coalitions are gathered under the umbrella of the Constitution for All Egyptians Front which on Monday issued a statement identifying the greatest challenge to the revolution as "Islamist parties, and the dominance of the Muslim Brotherhood over parliament and the constituent assembly".

It was the Brotherhood's attempt to impose its hegemony over the constitution, said the statement, "that prompted national forces and parties, youth, cultural and women's movements, syndicates and trade unions, labour, farmers and religious leaders to form the Constitution for All Egyptians Front". Its aim, the statement continued, is to "reach consensus over the criteria for drafting a new constitution that will achieve the basic demands -- freedom, social justice and dignity -- of the revolution".

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) sent a delegation to Al-Azhar to meet with El-Tayeb in an attempt to end Al-Azhar's boycott. It failed. The nine-member committee, led by senior FJP MP Mohamed El-Beltagui tasked with trying to persuade liberal members of the assembly to end their boycott has also been unsuccessful.

"Fifteen of the assembly's parliamentary members are ready to withdraw in order to make room for more figures from outside parliament," said El-Beltagui. "The offer shows how committed we are to ensuring the assembly includes representatives from all sectors of society."

Their replacements would, of course, need to be endorsed by the FJP-dominated People's Assembly, one reason, perhaps, why El-Beltagui's offer has had no takers.

Constituent assembly member MP Wahid Abdel-Meguid, the political analyst who acted as parliamentary election coordinator for the FJP- dominated Democratic Alliance, believes efforts to end the boycott are doomed to fail in the absence of "a restructuring of the composition of the assembly" given the fears of many that the Islamists will "use their voting power to impose the texts they want on the constitution".

"Right now there are two obvious options," Abdel-Meguid told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Either the assembly continues writing the new constitution, opting to replace those elected members who are boycotting, or SCAF amends Article 60 of the constitutional declaration removing from MPs the exclusive right to determine who joins the assembly."

"Both options are dangerous. But there is also a chance that boycotting members rejoin the assembly should Islamist forces agree to adopt the Al-Azhar document on the new constitution which clearly states that Egypt is a civilian, democratic state."

"The manner in which El-Katatni was elected chairman of the constituent assembly left liberal and secular forces in no doubt that Islamist members of the assembly had been told what to do -- elect El-Katatni as chairman unopposed," says Abdel-Meguid. "From there it is a very small step to assume a new constitution has already been drafted for which the Islamist majority would vote regardless, rendering the deliberations of the assembly redundant."

El-Katatni -- who won the vote of 71 of the 72 members attending the assembly's first meeting, said this week that "the assembly will go with its duties".

"If anyone boycotts its meetings," he added, "they will be replaced by others elected as reserves."

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