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Egypt secularist forces want constitution first, elections later

Liberal and secular political activists are haunted by growing fears that the policies of the ruling Military Council might end up serving the interests of Islamists – especially the Muslim Brotherhood

Gamal Essam El-Din , Saturday 11 Jun 2011

Liberal and secular political forces mobilized during the past few days, with the objective of stepping up pressure on the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) to amend the constitution ahead of parliamentary elections, scheduled next September. Youth movements of the 25th January Revolution are now contemplating the staging of a million-man demonstration at Tahrir Square under the slogan "Constitution First Friday”.

“Constitution First” calls began to gain momentum on the Second Friday of Anger organized at Tahrir Square on 27 May. Tens of thousands of the 25th Revolution Youth, joined by civil society and human rights organisations brandished placards bearing just two words “the constitution first.”

One week later, key 25th January youth  movements boycotted a national dialogue organized by SCAF in  a bid to reach a common ground on the agenda of political reform. They said they "can not  join a dialogue lacking a clear agenda of priorities" and voiced sharp criticism of SCAF, accusing it of imposing its will without consulting political forces first.

The “Constitution First” call gained further momentum when a “National Consensus” conference, organized by the government and led by deputy prime minister Yehia Al-Gammal, concluded its meetings on Thursday, stating that “Egypt is in a pressing need for a constitution first ahead of any elections – be they parliamentary or presidential.

The Conference’s Electoral Systems Committee (ESC) recommended that “a constitution be drafted first, because this is the best guarantee against a certain force – widely believed to be Muslim Brotherhood –  does not impose its Islamist ideology on the next constitution.“

According to SCAF-drafted constitutional declaration announced on 30 March, the new parliament would select a 100-member constituent assembly to be entrusted with drafting the new constitution.

The fears of secular and liberal forces intensified when leaders of Muslim Brotherhood decided to boycott the “National Consensus” conference which was entrusted with drawing up guidelines for the new constitution and proposing amendments of the law. Brotherhood leaders argued that “the conference is useless as long as it is members of the new parliament who will be finally empowered with drafting the new constitution.” 

The above Brotherhood position triggered immediate and furious reactions from liberal forces. Osama El-Ghazali Harb charged that the “Muslim Brotherhood is now acting like Mubarak’s defunct ruling National  Democratic Party. The arrogance they are showing indidates they are preparing to inherit NDP’s authoritarian role in political life,” Harb said.

Harb said “a united front, including a wide array of political forces, are now being mobilized to step up pressure on the government and SCAF, and we are ready to go to Tahrir Square again to send a clear message to SCAF that Egypt is in a desperate need of a constitution first formula.”

Rifaat El-Said, chairman of the leftist Tagammu party, was more vocal in criticizing SCAF. In an article in Tagammu’s mouthpiece Al-Ahali, El-Said said “SCAF’s polices clearly serve the interests of Muslim Brotherhood.” According to Said, the military council did this when selected two prominent Islamists, one of them a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood to sit on the committee entrusted with amending ten key articles of the constitution. “I wonder why Sobhi Saleh in particular, a radical Islamist lawyer,  was selected from among thousands of Egypt’s constitutional law experts to join this committee,” said El-Said, concluding that “Saleh was selected because it is clear that SCAF gives a lot of weight to Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of other forces.

El-Said believes that “the elections first” agenda clearly serves Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist forces “because they have the money and the power to sweep these elections, in an atmosphere of lack of security and with no legal restrictions on campaign spending or the use of religious slogans." According to Said, that is the reason why "the Brotherhood does everything possible to stand against the constitution first formula,. El-Said, added that “constitution first means that no single political force – especially Islamists – will be able to impose its ideology on the country’s political agenda for the coming years, and that there will be some time available for liberal and secular forces to take root and be able to compete fairly with Islamists in the coming elections.”

Joining forces with liberals and Islamists, deputy prime minister Yehia El-Gammal put it clearly which launching the National Consensus conference, emphasizing that “Muslim Brotherhood refused to participate in the conference because they it is gearing itself up to clinch most of the seats of the new parliament and then take charge of drafting a constitution tailored to its needs and ideology rather than to the needs and interests of Egypt as a whole.”

The fears of Islamists dominating political and parliamentary life went beyond the borders of Egypt. In the United States, several congressmen said they are not ready to ratify President Barack Obama’s new plan aimed at exempting Egypt of LE1 billion of its debts owed to America. They said they are not ready to approve this plan while Muslim Brotherhood is moving to control Egypt.

Some secular and liberal forces, however, are less worried about Muslim Brotherhood. They are, nevertheless, in support of delaying parliamentary elections. Amr Moussa, the outgoing secretary of Arab League and a hopeful presidential candidate, said he is in favour of holding presidential elections first, to be followed by amending the constitution, and at last by parliamentary elections. Moussa said “I know that some forces are trying to get the most of the 25th January Revolution in their favor but this does not mean that we delay the elections.”

“All I want to say is that let us start with the presidential elections and after a new president is elected, let us select a constituent assembly to be entrusted with drafting the new constitution, and at the very end parliamentary elections will be held,” said Moussa.

It remains to be seen how secular and liberal forces will be able to garner support for their “constitution first” agenda, or if their Islamist rivals will be able to impose their “electionf first” campaign.

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