Political groups challenge legality of MPs' inclusion in constituent assembly

Nada Hussein Rashwan, Ahram Online, Wednesday 7 Mar 2012

Disagreements erupt over number of MPs to be included in assembly mandated with drawing up Egypt's new national charter; Islamists call for higher number of MPs while liberals focus on incorporation of minorities

Egyptian Parliament
A file image of Egypt's first post-Mubarak parliament in February (Photo: Reuters)

A row erupted this week between various Egyptian political forces over the constitutionality of including sitting MPs in the soon-to-be-formed constituent assembly.

Several political forces released a joint press statement on Monday in which they pointed to recent parliamentary proposals to include sitting MPs in the constituent assembly, which they described as a violation of the terms of the constitutional declaration issued in March of last year.

The joint statement described the inclusion of sitting MPs in the constituent assembly – which will be mandated with drawing up Egypt's new constitution – as "playing with fire," warning of attempts to dominate the assembly through parliamentary channels.

Among the statement's signatories were the National Association for Change reform movement, the Egyptian Socialist Democratic Party, the April 6 Youth Movement and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition.

The statement asserted that parliament's implementation of Article 60 of the constitutional declaration, which regulates the process of the constituent assembly's formation, directly contradicts the text of the article itself.

The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), which controls almost half of the People's Assembly, submitted a proposal in the first joint parliamentary session on Saturday that 40 members of the 100-member constituent assembly be sitting MPs, while the remaining 60 members be elected by parliamentarians.

In the statement, political groups explained that Article 60 of the constitutional declaration prohibited members of either parliamentary house from being appointed to the constituent assembly.

However, the original text of the debated article does not specify whether or not MPs should be barred from the assembly. The article states merely that: "Elected members of the first [post-revolution] upper and lower houses convene, at the invitation of the head of the military council, within six months of completing parliamentary elections to elect a constituent assembly composed of one hundred members, to be tasked with preparing a new draft constitution within six months of its formation."

The article's ambiguous phrasing has led to conflicting interpretations by different political groups regarding the constitutionality of appointing sitting MPs to the constituent assembly.

The Salafist Nour Party – the second largest bloc in Parliament – is pushing for an even larger proportion of sitting MPs in the constituent assembly than that proposed by the FJP. The party has proposed that 60 MPs be appointed to the assembly and 20 members be elected by Parliament, while the 20 remaining members be nominated by labour syndicates and other institutions.

Salafist lawyer and MP Mamdouh Ismail, deputy head of the Salafist Asala Party, even went so far during the joint parliamentary session as to say it was "unconstitutional" to elect any assembly members from outside Parliament. This followed earlier assertions that Egypt's next national charter should "reflect the country's Islamic identity."

In response, the Cairo-based Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights filed a lawsuit Monday demanding legislation giving the country's institutions – from workers' unions and religious authorities to civil society groups – the right to nominate constituent assembly members. The lawsuit also demanded that nomination guidelines be laid down, since there is no mention of a regulatory framework in the text of Article 60 of the constitutional declaration.

Dissident political groups accuse Parliament's Islamist powerbrokers – namely the FJP and the Nour Party – of attempting to hijack the process of drafting the constitution by pushing for the inclusion of sitting MPs in the constituent assembly.

Hussein Ibrahim, head of the FJP's parliamentary bloc, told state daily Al-Ahram on Tuesday that the party did not seek to "hijack" the constitution-drafting process, stressing that the party's proposal simply aimed at achieving a degree of consensus.

The notion of MPs' inclusion in the constituent assembly has not been rejected by non-Islamist parliamentarians; rather, the disagreement revolves around the percentage of MPs that the assembly should include.

Liberal MP Amr Hamzawy proposed during the joint parliamentary session that the number of MPs appointed to the constituent assembly should not exceed 30, while the remaining 70 should represent as many political and social orientations as possible. He also stressed the importance of female and Coptic representation in the assembly.

Similarly, the liberal Free Egyptians Party on Wednesday called for the inclusion of only 20 MPs in the 100-member assembly on condition that the 20 MPs froze their parliamentary membership during the drafting process. The party further recommended that the remaining 80 members include ten women, ten Coptic Christians and ten prominent public figures.

Parliament has set 17 March as the deadline for receiving suggestions on the assembly's framework and nomination guidelines, both from MPs and non-parliamentary individuals and entities. The date for the election of constituent assembly members has been set by Parliament for 24 March.

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