Egypt's parliament choosing constituent assembly amid disagreements and protests

Ahram Online, AFP, Saturday 24 Mar 2012

The joint parliament session convenes to elect the constituent assembly with hundreds protesting against Islamists dominance in parliament

A photo of the protest before the convention centre uploaded on micro-blogging site Twitter by @Dr_Mokka

The joint parliament session held on Saturday to choose the constituent assembly, which will draft Egypt's new constitution, witnessed some disagreements over how exactly to elect the members that will sit on the all-important committee of 100 members.

Meanwhile, hundreds protest against what is perceived as a disregard of anyone else's voice by Islamist members of parliament, who are accused of simply using their majority to bulldoze through the process.

Disagreement from within

Although People's Assembly speaker, El-Katatni, specified to parliament that MPs are required to choose 37 from the lower house 13 from the upper house, 25 from state institutions and 25 from the proposed public figures, revolution coalitions, syndicates and trade unions, it wasn't enough for some MP's.

Furthermore, during Saturday's session, MPs called for mini-biographies of the nominees from among the public figures, because some of them might not be well-recognised.

MP El-Katatni, however, rejected the suggestion, saying there is absolutely no time to carry it out.

MP Mostafa El-Naggar is boycotting the vote because he saw current election rules may hinder low-profile revolutionary representatives to participate in the constitution drafting.

"We agreed that 25 members must be from non-governmental bodies. If the voting process continues like this, however, parliament will even eliminate representation for these bodies," he said during the session.

As the written rules stand now, he asserts: "Any MP can pick 50 public figures and not choose representatives for non-governmental bodies. I think this is against what we agree upon and I do not think the public opinion would be satisfied with that.

According to the parliament speaker earlier this morning, trade, farmer and student unions, human rights NGOs and syndicates fall under the "public figures" category, from which MPs should pick only 25. Another 25 are picked under the category of "governmental institutions," under which fall prominent academics and government officials.

Currently, the rules only state that the constituent assembly will be made up of 50 members from the People's Assembly (lower house) and Shura Council (upper house) - both dominated by Islamists - and 50 experts and public figures from outside parliament. 

Parliament already began receiving nominations for the constituent assembly last week.

External opposition

Several political groups fear that Islamists want to exert control over the process of forming the constituent assembly.

To calm fears of Parliament intervention, El-Katatni stressed that after the constituent assembly was chosen it would be allowed to operate independently from parliament, as they will have no authority over it. El-Katatni opted not to run for the ongoing election.

However, still fearful, political groups have called for marches towards the Cairo convention centre, where the legislators are assembled. Accordingly, the centre is now heavily guarded by the Central Security Forces (CSF).

Roughly 700 demonstrators, lefties and liberals, from four different marches have converged at the convention centre to protest what they see as a biased process of drafting the post-Mubarak constitution. The marches came from Al-Nour Mosque in Abbassiya district, Raba El-Adawia Mosque and the Ahly Club in Nasr City and Hegaz Square in Heliopolis.

More are currently heading towards the stadium to join them. Protesters hold banners that read "Yes for a constitution that express all Egyptians," among other slogans.

A famous protester is among the demonstrators and spoke on air. Ahmed Harara is now famous because the dentist lost his sight after being blinded first in one eye during a protest and then his other in a separate protest because both protests were attacked by state forces.

Harara told Al-Jazeera that "I object to the ratios of public figures and MPs [50-50]. The former category should be larger." This is despite the fact that Harara is a strong candidate for the constituent assembly, which he stressed he would work on should he be elected.

Before the constitutional court in the district of Maadi, dozens gathered to sound dissatisfaction over the Islamists' desire to "dominate the constitution."

Independent MP Mohamed Abou Hamed, one of the protesters, said: "There's no big difference between them [Islamist MP's] and [Mubarak's] National Democratic Party."

The making of the constitution, by whom?

According to a schedule established by Egypt's ruling military, parliament is to wrap up its work before presidential elections - which now seems abrupt - ahead of the vote due to be held in May.

Liberals fear that the Islamists will try to beef up references to Islam in the new constitution.

The old charter said that the principles of Islamic law were the source of legislation, a vague formulation that hardliners in the ultra-conservative Salafist Nour party want concretised in the new constitution.

The Freedom and Justice Party, the political arm of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood, however, has sought to allay fears that it wants a stricter adherence to sharia (Islamic law) in the new constitution.

In a comment on his Twitter account, Mohamed ElBaradei, the former UN nuclear watchdog chief turned Egyptian dissident, questioned parliament's right to form the panel altogether.

"A parliament whose legitimacy is in doubt will elect a panel," he states, in reference to a court case that questions the legitimacy of the recently-elected parliament, "half of it from parliament, that is not partial to forming a constitution for Egypt rather than for the [parliamentary] majority," wrote ElBaradei.

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