Brotherhood scrambles for consensus with opposition on draft constitution

Salma Shukrallah, Tuesday 6 Nov 2012

President Morsi and the Constituent Assembly – tasked with drafting new national charter – are hosting meetings with opposition parties in hopes of reaching consensus

Negotiations ongoing to save constitution, seek political consensus
Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi (R) meets with former presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabahi at the Presidential Palace in Cairo November 3, 2012 (Photo: Reuters)

In an attempt to contain widening cracks between Egypt's political forces, and save the Constituent Assembly tasked with drafting a new constitution, both the presidency and the assembly are meeting with a variety of political figures, parties and movements in a series of parallel meetings.

The initiative, 'To Unite with the Opposition,' was first announced by the newly-elected head of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party, Saad El-Katatni.

El-Katatni, who is also a member of the Constituent Assembly, called for "reuniting the forces that fought side by side in the revolution" after political disagreements reached a peak in Tahrir Square when pro-Morsi and anti-Morsi political rivals engaged in street battles on 12 October.

The initiative has expanded beyond his Islamist party and is now spearheaded by the highest authority in the country: the presidency.

President Mohamed Morsi, for his part, has already met with influential political figures, including nationalist Hamdeen Sabbahi, renegade Islamist Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh and ex-head of the Arab League Amr Moussa, in addition to political party heads and youth representatives in several consecutive meetings.

Mohamed Osman, a young member of the Strong Egypt Party, who attended the Sunday meeting with the president, is hopeful.

"The Brotherhood now faces several economic and social problems, as well as external pressure that require them to pass through the current transition period. They will need to find a solution," said Osman, optimistic that there would be a compromise on the contents of the new constitution.

According to Osman, proposals made by several of the young representatives attending the meetings included increasing the percentage of the Constituent Assembly's internal voting to require a 67 per cent approval rate to pass any draft article. Another suggestion was to replace several Constituent Assembly members to make the constitution-drafting body more representative.   

Head of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, Mohamed Abul-Ghar, was less optimistic about the outcome of the meetings, arguing that the president had no authority over the constitution, or the decisions of the Constituent Assembly. He stressed that political polarisation over the issue would likely continue.

"As long as the Brotherhood and the Salafists insist on the constitutional article that defines Islamic Law [mentioned in article 2 of the constitution as the 'main source of legislation'], then no agreement can be achieved," Abul-Ghar argued.

Osman, on the other hand, asserted: "Morsi represents the Brotherhood and the meetings with the presidency can be used to pressure the group to soften some of their positions within the Constituent Assembly."

However, Freedom and Justice Party member Ahmed Oqeil, who was also present with Osman at the presidential office on Sunday, voiced his complete rejection of any attempt by the president to influence the work of the Constituent Assembly.

He insisted that the president's role would be limited to facilitating discussions and narrowing disagreements.

"There are a number of controversial issues within the constitution that need to be narrowed down and discussed through a sequence of meetings," he said. "President Morsi is exerting serious effort through his meetings to create consensus and bring the different parties closer."

In fact, according to activist Ahmed Imam, who also attended the Monday meeting, the first thing the president pointed out was that he had no intention of interfering in or influencing the constitution-drafting body and that the meetings only aimed at reaching consensus.

Imam, however, complained that when he saw several of his fellow activists – such as Wael Ghoneim – leaving the Sunday meeting with a positive impression, when it was his turn to attend the meeting on Monday, he came to the conclusion that the meetings would "not solve anything."

President Morsi, he explained, had suggested that consensus over the constitution was not attainable and that a 70 to 80 per cent agreement would be sufficient.

Imam feared a similar polarisation to that witnessed during the previous constitutional referendum was inevitable.

In March of last year, a referendum over proposed constitutional amendments outlining Egypt's transitional period turned into a battle between Islamists and non-Islamists. Islamists had rallied for a 'Yes' vote and non-Islamists for a 'No' vote; the use of religious discourse played a major role in the polarisation.

The meeting Imam attended also included several independent activists like himself, a number of FJP, Nour Party and Wasat Party members, in addition to several presidential advisors.

"The meeting only aimed to lend legitimacy to the draft constitution, which is due to be passed," Imam charged.

Contrary to Imam's claim, presidential spokesperson Yasser Ali said that Morsi had agreed with heads of political parties on some 90 per cent of the draft constitution – a claim quickly refuted by Abul-Ghar, who was present as one of the party heads.

As of press time, presidential advisors who attended the meeting were not available for comment on the meeting's outcome.

Constituent Assembly members and presidential advisors are making attempts – parallel to Morsi's efforts – to narrow ongoing political disagreements. A meeting was also called for Monday, to which 14 young political party representatives were invited.

Several of them declined to attend in a joint statement issued Monday morning by the Egyptian Popular Current, the Constitution Party, the Socialist Popular Alliance, the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, the Free Egypt Party and the Free Egyptians Party.

The young representatives reiterated their calls to change the membership of the Constituent Assembly, in order to "guarantee a balanced representation of Egypt's diverse society."

"This will represent the real diversity of [Egypt's] community: a point we have made many times before and which was communicated by party representatives and directors in previous discussions with President Morsi," they proclaimed.

"We are waiting for the president to announce his position regarding these suggestions," the statement added, stressing its refusal to engage in any further dialogue about the proposed constitution.

The scheduled session, the six parties continued, "does not respect our standpoint and does not offer a serious opportunity for forces [to voice] their opposition to the formulation of the Constituent Assembly."

Khaled Abdel-Hamid of the Socialist Popular Alliance told Ahram Online that he had also received an invitation to meet with President Morsi on Sunday but chose not to respond to the invitation.

These are not the first meetings held in an attempt to reach consensus over Egypt's next national charter.

The division had initially been between the Islamist and non-Islamist camps. New rifts have since emerged, however, between Salafist parties and the Muslim Brotherhood over the extent to which Islamic law should play a role in the new constitution.

Parties attending the Monday meeting with Constituent Assembly members also included the Salafist Nour Party.

Further stressing the need to engage in the ongoing meetings, Osman believes that political parties should engage with the Brotherhood to express their views, as the Brotherhood will have to make compromises to both camps – the Salafists and the non-Islamists – "at the least possible cost" to itself.

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